irrepressible & resilient

I live on a farm in a high mountain valley in southwest Virginia.  Part of our land is in meadow and has been in meadow since before Europeans arrived when Native Americans managed the area as an inter-tribal hunting ground.  Part of the land is in old climax forest where the trees have not been harvested for more than a century and the underbrush cleared out in the 1930s by a WPA crew. It is a delight to walk in.  A smaller third part is rugged and rocky hillside pasture used for livestock.  We took part of the meadow for our gardens when we retired here 10-11 years ago. While our gardens have been productive, we constantly work at weed control because the meadow grasses and other plants, having established themselves here for more than 3 centuries, are irrepressible.

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Do what we may, they find a way to resurge and grow again.

Up in our forest comprising many hardwood species we find wildflowers according to their season and mosses.  Beautiful mosses of many sorts, lovely and seemingly fragile, but appearances are deceiving because it turns out that they, too, are irrepressible.

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Scientists paying attention to the recession of glaciers as they melt from global warming have found some remarkable mosses.  These were buried under many feet of ice 1600 years ago, but with a little TLC they came back to life.  Now that is irrepressible.  In addition, scientists have found nematodes  (small worms) that were frozen 41,000 years ago and still live. Who knows what other resilient life is hidden on Gaia and on other planets? Here’s a link to that report:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/ancient-life-awakens-amid-thawing-ice-caps-and-permafrost/2019/07/05/335281f8-7108-11e9-9f06-5fc2ee80027a_story.html.

Re-reading Ramachandran

I have been pondering how to go further towards a neural model of art-making, so I re-read the two chapters on art in V. S. Ramachandran’s book, The Telltale Brain.  As I reviewed in my post on 3/20/18, this is a very interesting book; Ramachandran is a scientist-practitioner of the highest order.  While I had some quibbles about the book in general, I gave him credit for having two chapters on art, which is two more than most books on neuroscience have, and they are interesting chapters, so I re-read them.

I will focus today on two quibbles, one minor and one major, and then applaud and expand one theme he carries forward in these chapters.  The minor quibble is easy and common.  When he talks about art, he is only discussing paintings with a heavy emphasis on the audience’s engagement at that.  Many books that touch on this topic show the same constraints. In part this is due to the extensive research into the visual system, so that we are able to transfer that knowledge to ideas on art appreciation.  It is also due to the difficulty in exploring the compositional process painters go through as they paint.  More distressing, though, is the assumption that art=painting, thereby ignoring music, literature, sculpture, architecture, etc.  The remedy to this quibble is increased awareness of aesthetic theory, e.g., everyone should read Langer’s Philosophy in a New Keyand Feeling and Formand increased knowledge in the efforts to understand other art forms, e.g., much is done on music.

My major quibble is a more of a problem.  When I re-read these chapters I found a passage where Ramachandran states that art is not important in our evolution:  “the production of art itself does not have survival value” and “its role is pure enjoyment.”  What? Even if true, enjoyment has survival value, else how do you explain a neural system uncovered by Jaak Panksepp that supports play and feelings of joy?  Also, humans (and our cousins) have been making art for maybe 100,000+ years, every society and culture has established artistic traditions, and as Ellen Dissayanake showed in her book Homo Aestheticus, art is ubiquitous in human affairs.  Limiting the consideration of art to the fine art of painting, as Ramachandran does, prevents adequate intellectual consideration of the phenomena.  So our artistic capability has certainly resulted from evolutionary changes.

This can be complicated.  What do we call an evolutionary product that does not contribute to adaptive success? Pinker and Bloom give an example of blood’s redness—the color is only a result of hemoglobin being iron-based; if we were lobsters with copper-based hemoglobin, our blood would be green.  So our blood’s redness is called an evolutionary spandrel after architectural spandrels that result from arching pillars joining the roof and creating a triangular space that does not contribute to the supporting structure even if it does yield a decorative space:

Spandrel

Elsewhere Ramachandran states that art-making is done by “deliberate hyperbole and distortion of reality”.  Well, that does make art seem incidental.  As you may guess, I think it is counter to reality. Art is, I believe as Langer conceptualized, a high level intellectual activity, the abstraction of the idea of emotion, and a complex sharing of deeply felt vital experience.  Consider this:  we grow pumpkins.  One or two flowers on a vine develop into a fruit, while the other blossoms contribute pollen and draw pollinators to the plant.  Are those non-fruiting blossoms useless?  Do they not support the production of the fruit needed to carry on the genetic strain?  Are they just redundant and back-up in case other blossoms fail?  What determines that?  I think even calling art a spandrel is not apt, and Ramachandran belittles art beyond that.

However, in this interesting book, he does give us some pearls.  Ramachandran states that our neuroscience has advanced to the stage wherein we can speculate about how our brains do art, and not many say that so clearly.  He provides a couple of goals for our quest.  One is that we should know how to distinguish between real art and kitsch, but I am not sure that is a worthy one.  I like a second one better.  He draws from his heritage to discuss a word/concept from Sanskrit, “rasa” that means to capture the essence or spirit of a thing.  To understand art, Ramachandran says in contradiction to his belittling elsewhere, we need to understand its ‘rasa’.  Okay then.

He talks about ‘Aha!’ moments when we apprehend the rasa in a work of art and thinks maybe this occurs when cortical processing becomes synchronized and so excites the limbic system to a positive state.  Could be, but this also seems a bit too simple.  Ramachandran discusses 9 laws of aesthetics that he draws from neural functioning.  These are interesting but limited by his debilitated view of art as not intellectual, focus on the visual system and audience experience, and lack of consideration of the artist’s process of production.  Aesthetic joy is a real phenomena, sometimes ‘Aha!’, more often a quiet wave of reflection, and we do need to understand how the artist achieves it, how the audience receives it, and the symbolic forms that convey it.  Ramachandran gives some ideas about the neural structures and functions supporting these, nothing earth-shaking, so maybe I will post more on this after a few more re-reads and further pondering.

Finishing up, Ramachandran gives two examples of art appreciation, or lack thereof. He talks of how a Victorian English art critic disparaged the statue of Nataraja (Shiva as Lord of the Dance—the dance that creates the universe) as savagery, not art.  Ain’t it funny how ignorant imperialists are?  But long ago the locals watched a bearded European stand entranced in front of the statue and then begin to contort his body to mirror the various postures Shiva assumes.  They thought this was a bit crazy until someone realized that the man was August Rodin, and the sculptor was appreciating the artistry involved in that statue.

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Shiva as Lord of the Dance

The last example comes from Ramachandran’s discussion of how nervous systems like exaggerated forms, thus explaining the power of caricatures.  He details how Tinbergen, pioneer ethologist, discovered that gull chicks pecked at the red spot on the mother’s bill to get her to feed them, and that they would peck at almost anything with a red spot, but they would peck the most at a stick with 3 red stripes painted on it. Again, this illustrates how our brains process stimuli, even objects that are distorted far from reality can provoke the strongest response.  Ramachandran compares these gull chicks to art connoisseurs who chase the newest fad. Now I have to like that.

Well, time to travel on to the next view of our biological roots.

Are socialization and acculturation the true names? If so, of what?

Several ancient traditions held that using the right word or phrase was important in rendering the truth of the matter. Writers such as Ursula K. Leguin adopted this tradition in some of her fiction—the power of naming, of saying the true name, was magical in EarthSea.  I recently read another Chinese writer, Lu Chi, who espoused a similar idea back around 300 CE. A modern example might be Murray Gell-Mann’s use of the word “quarks” for the particles, whether theoretically real or mathematically imaginary, which make up the atomic and sub-atomic particle zoo.  I just finished his biography; what an amazing creature he was (having just passed away on 5/24/2019).  He had a hand or finger in almost every advance in developing the what physicists now refer to as the Standard Theory, as good an approximation in our understanding of physical reality as we have managed, not the ultimate one, they say, but one that manages to be the most accurate in accounting for past experimental results and predicting future ones.  New ways of explaining previously unknown particles and fields were needed.  Gell-Mann was known for coining terms to label some of these newly found phenomena, his lifting of the word “quark” from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake being the most famous.

I have also finished The Social Construction of Reality by Berger and Luckmann, a very intense, insightful book examining the sociology of knowledge that I discussed a couple of posts ago (6/22/19), and their use of labels is what really concerns me today.  After discussing the objective basis of our social construction they move on to the subjective basis.  That, of course, necessitates they venture from a sociological domain into one more psychological.  If they wrote their book today, rather than in 1966, I think they would be able to find better words (maybe the right or ‘true names’) to capture some important phenomena.

They refer to the process of a human child acquiring the basis and basics of its society’s construction of reality, which includes the establishment of identity, as socialization.  While they are focused on the sociological structures of knowledge, they acknowledge a necessary component of emotional identification.  Gosh and golly, for those of us who began studying in the late 60s, this necessary component morphed into the very important phenomena of attachment and identification, including the basic capability of emotional regulation going up and down, including now some of the neural structures that serve this development of a functional personality (see Allan Schore’s books and my post on 7/31/18).

Many do still refer to this phase of development as ‘socialization’ so that word is still serviceable.  After this initial phase, a second phase begins during which language helps children to acquire the social accoutrements of their culture.  Berger and Luckmann call this phase ‘socialization 2’. Not bad for a first approximation, but it lacks the cachet of the later term ‘acculturation’.  I really like these two terms when placed in relation to one another:  socialization refers to the ontogeny of an individual mind, personality and early social identity and acculturation refers to that individual’s acquiring the habitus and orthodoxy of their culture, including their social roles outside of familial relations.  If, as an adult, you move to a different land, you will be acculturated anew, maybe not to the same unconscious or deep level of implicit or procedural memories as a naïve youngster once was but still learning some new ways.

A couple of favorite examples of this latter process comes from movies and TV. One of our favorite shows on PBS is Cycling Around Japan in which a westerner who has lived in Japan for some years and is an avid bicyclist travels through an area meeting interesting people, e.g., farmers, fishermen, and craftsmen, or better, craftspeople & fisherpeople.  I find the care with which the westerners approach each Japanese person delightful. They always greet the person at the outset, “Konichiwa” and ask permission to talk and view their work as they exchange bows.  Contrast this culture where each person is careful not to be intrusive, where calm and distant politeness in basic exchanges is quietly assumed, with the attitude currently in the news about the New York way of blustery engagement.  I prefer the Japanese culture in this, but then I went to high school in Japan and hold those memories dear.

The second example of a different acculturation is from the movie, Wadjda, discussed here in a post on 12/11/14 about a young Arab girl who wants to ride a bicycle, a completely unorthodox and mostly unacceptable wish on her part.  A westerner would have to adapt very quickly, i.e., become acculturated, to function in this culture, especially a female. Women who even visit briefly must dress accordingly, e.g., no shorts or even short dresses and wear a head covering. That is an obvious and surface marker of cultural differences, but one scene in the movie stands out to me.  The girls at lunchtime are allowed to play outside for a while.  Some workmen on the roof of a building some distance away settle down for their lunch with a view of the schoolyard.  Immediately most of the girls run inside because, after all, these are men not of their family and so cannot look at them.  Our heroine Wadjda retreats more slowly, (oh, she is a spunky lass) because why should the girls have to lose their recess due to men who are far away, and is promptly reprimanded by the schoolmarm for doing so.

Berger and Luckmann’s term ‘socialization 2’ does not really capture this phenomena in an illuminating way—‘acculturation’ is the way to go, assuming you are being neutral and not judging the Arab society mores discriminating against females (and then other terms would apply, eh? Let’s settle on ‘unjust’ for now).  As always I wish to understand how these two terms, socialization and acculturation, if they do indeed parse out the true or right distinctions in our development, operate in neural terms.  As I mentioned, Allan Schore has given us a good start on the socialization front in his excellent summary of research into the neural systems supporting attachment and emotional regulation, but what are the neural systems supporting acculturation? I presume acculturation is quite complex and not at all unified into a single system.  Consider some of the various facets: kinesics, e.g., body language, social mores of politeness, social constraints on topics for conversation, divisions between groups, child-rearing and elder support practices, along with the traditional anthropological subjects of property inheritance, matri- and patri-lineal succession, ways of forming alliances, e.g., marriages, and rituals marking birth, death, and the passages falling in-between.

Thinking about the conventional understanding of our current paradigms, some of these facets would be inherent in procedural and semantic memories, while some would seem to operate through episodic or autonoetic memories.  Many would seem to operate as constraints as to what could be understood, remembered and practiced as orthodox and acceptable, i.e., the less conscious standards by which we judge the others.  Ah, so much more to understand as we progress in our thinking when we are more capable.

I leave you with a passage from the Art of Writing, written by Lu Chi (more on him later) around 300 CE and translated by Sam Hamill:

Ordering thoughts and ideas we begin to choose our words.

Each choice is made with care, fit with a sense of proportion.

Shadowy thoughts are brought into the light of reason; echoes are traced to their sources.

It is like following the branch to find the trembling leaf, like following the stream to find the spring.

*  *  *  *  *

Calm the heart’s dark waters; Collect from deep thoughts the proper names for things.

 

Lu Chi’s lessons apply, I believe, to most intellectual endeavors.  As always, looking for the proper name of things, I travel on.

I stumble through and bump my head

For a couple of years now I have been reading various works from Asia and pondering how Eastern thought contributes to our understanding of ourselves and our world.  This includes specific ancient texts, like the Tao te Ching and various sutras, as well as commentaries thereon, and ancient to almost modern poetry.  Lovely stuff!  I have also been going through The Gateless Gate  (an old collection of Buddhist koans—paradoxical statements meant to help one along the way to enlightenment, like “What is the sound of one hand clapping? Or one of my favorites:  What was your primal face before your parents were born?) very slowly and marveling at how Buddhists can confound linear thinking.  While I learn much from all of these texts, I also have had a nagging quibble that seems important but difficult to articulate  . . . .

. . . Until I read a statement of some hybrid beliefs involving Buddhism and Gaian theory and my quibble crystalized into a coherent structure.

More context before my quibble.  I was reading a book not about Eastern thought but one about Gregory Bateson, a very interesting fellow.  He comes from a self-described family of atheists, himself being the fourth generation of skeptics.  In Gregory’s youth they hobnobbed with some of the great thinkers of early 20thcentury England such as the Huxleys and Alfred North Whitehead.  His father was instrumental in spreading the ideas of Gregor Mendel, the monk who worked so assiduously on plant genetics, integrated with Darwinian ideas; indeed he was one of the first to call this study of heredity “genetics” and Gregory was named after the monk.  The father seems to me a prime example of being in the right place at the right time with a mind prepared to grow the opportunity.

Gregory Bateson was a mostly independent scholar who worked across many disciplines.  As a young man he married Margaret Mead and they did research together in the south Pacific islands.  He then had a long and influential career studying cybernetics, psychiatry, semantics and communication theory, as well as anthropology.  I had heard mention of him over the years without remarking upon him very much until recently, and then his ideas seemed quite relevant to mine and important in general, so I read Understanding Gregory Bateson:  Mind, Beauty and the Sacred Earthby Noel Charlton (a decent read though Mr. Charlton spends much energy evangelizing for Bateson’s ideas—they are good but this is not how change comes about.  I may get around to a more thorough review of this book later).

Bateson saw all of nature as a series of nested minds, ours being nested on some intermediate level, so that all of our ecology is actually one mind composed of many minds.  He saw that in our separating ourselves from nature, we had lost ‘grace’ and were harming our world and so also ourselves.  The way back to grace is to engage with the sacred or the unitary grandness of life on our planet (oh, I am simplifying here a great deal—read more for yourselves) through aesthetics, the beauty of nature, and human art.  If you follow my blog you can understand why I wanted to know more about his work.

In the penultimate chapter Charlton reviews how other thinkers were influenced by Bateson and how other ideas meshed with his ecological views.  One of these was Gaian theory, of course, and one of these thinkers was a Buddhist-Gaian scholar named Joanna Macy. This seems a natural confluence here, and you know I like confluences.  When I read Charlton’s rendition of Macy’s ideas, I realized what my mind had balked at as I read other ideas from the East.  Specifically I struggled to understand the notion that enlightenment involves experiencing the unity between objective and subjective or the truth that there is no self.  Yes, I do accept that in meditation such boundaries can and do dissolve but once again, anyone who experiences enlightenment is a biological creature and that entails certain corollaries.

So Charlton says this of Macy’s ideas:  “Similarly, in both Buddhism and General Systems Theory (Macy uses this term interchangeably with ‘systems cybernetics’), the self is a process that cannot be abstracted from its context in nature and society.  It is an ‘open system’ and it is impossible to distinguish self from non-self.  Any division is arbitrary; the individual self is a fiction” (p. 189). Oops!  Sure self is a process on many levels but it can and is abstracted from its context; indeed, at a very basic level anything we use words to discuss is already abstracted from the flux and phantasmagoria of experience.  My question is always about the adequacy of the abstraction, i.e., does it capture the primary structure and its history along with its inter-relationships and dependencies with its soma, its ecology and its its ancient past?

The self, like its soma, is not an ‘open system’ and can certainly be distinguished from non-self, just like the soma is understood to be a life form. These are not ‘open systems’ because a soma, a brain and its MEMBRAIN maintain their integrity through control of the membrane functions, passing information in and out, keeping information in and out. The self follows along with this pattern.  Sure the soma is a wonderful composition of different life forms—the biome is a necessary adjunct to its healthy vital operations, and the self is also a complex composition dependent upon social interaction for its derivation.  I maintain that that the basic features are an autobiographical sense of its life and a sense of its agency, but secondary features abound, e.g., roles, selves associated with those roles, an apprehension of conscious subjectivity, etc.  Again, an adequate abstraction must also include what supports these features that operate below the limen of awareness, and also what the self keeps out of its ‘self-definition’.  For example, I am myself a father and husband, which are clearly within my self’s bounds, and I know the alphabet and basic math, but those are not a part of myself. Is this a fiction?  Why yes it is as a construct in the mind, but as Dumbledore told Harry, it is still true.

Somehow my mind likes Eastern philosophies; I find a good deal of truth and wisdom in their approach.  I think Buddhist enlightenment is a worthy goal, of sorts.  As I say in my creed, I follow an ethic of knowledge, and this leads me to explore the mystic boundaries within and beyond myself.  I find there a most agreeable landscape to wander (yes, yes, remember that not all who wander are lost).  But read the third chapter of The Gateless Gateabout Zen Master Gutei who always answered any question about Zen by raising one finger.  When he heard that his young assistant answered a question about his master’s teaching by raising his one finger, Gutei cut off the boy’s finger with a knife. The boy ran away.  Gutei called him back and raised one finger, and “the boy was suddenly enlightened”.

Somehow this enlightenment came with the experience that the self is a fiction, that his finger was part of what separated him from this realization, and that he understood that his self was a fiction and experienced reality as unitary and without conceptual distinctions—finger or no finger is a distraction.  Oops and ouch!  I have reached a mystical boundary and bumped my head in finding it.

With any religious school of thought and discipline my skepticism finds antiquated constructs, and there one is.  My ethic of knowledge keeps me grounded in my biological roots.  So enlightenment is a biological notion (maybe a rock or tree is enlightened but they, not some human being, would have to communicate that to me and I do listen out as I wander the farm.)  The self is an outgrowth or feature of life; it bears many relations to all that surrounds it now, past, and future, but a life has an onset and termination.  Some spiritual and religious traditions maintain the self is independent of those events, and I myself wonder about that, i.e., about how it could be true in my cosmology which is devoid of the supernatural. (Remember my motto: “If it is, it’s natural.  If it isn’t natural, it isn’t, except as an imaginative dream).  But the self and its soma is not an open system nor a closed system but a gated system operating to sustain the negentropic balance of energies working at the heart of life’s vitality.

How we understand life and cherish Gaia and structure our participation in this transcendent reality is important.  Bateson and many others know that we as a species are not doing a good job of this. How do we find and follow a better path? I do not know, but I think, like Bateson, that engaging with natural beauty and the vital experience artists render for us is very important.  I also think following an ethic of knowledge and seking a knowledge of ethics is important, e.g., appreciate our science and our human relationships with each other and Gaia.  As the previous post put it, “sometimes human beings are stupid”.  And sometimes we are smart.  I wonder about the cultural rhythms of wisdom and ignorance and travel on seeking a better wave.  But I cannot hold up one finger to indicate the one true way or condone mutilation in the interest of religious purity or spiritual realization.

Since human beings are frequently stupid . . .

As I read I am always on the lookout for another great book. I found in this way Pierre Boudrieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practiceand Susan Oyama’s The Ontogeny of Information among others.  Now I am reading another one, The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, touted as one of the 5 most important books on sociology last century (and there were many).  I am reading it slowly both to enjoy the ideas and to understand them as best I can.  Early on I kept saying to myself, “Is this how sociologists think about things?” because their level of analysis is so different from what I am used to (mostly psychological, biological and neuroscientific).  Social Construction is quite abstract and analyzes how we humans as a society form institutional knowledge and cultural forms almost on a step-by-step basis, beginning with dyad, then a triad, and then a larger group thereby creating and institutionalizing human culture.  It seems quite austere in its analytical and logical approach and I imagine required quite an effort to write so and supercede in the main the messiness of human biology and psychology.  This is a really good book.

Berger and Luckmann  write with insight albeit from their different perspective on many topics I have pondered. I particularly appreciated their arrival at understanding and stating oh so clearly that all of human culture is a human (and to me that means biological and organic) creation: “The origins of a symbolic universe have their roots in the constitution of man. If man in society is a world-constructor, this is made possible by his constitutionally given world-openness, which already implies the conflict between order and chaos.  Human existence is, ab initio, an ongoing externalization.  As man externalizes himself, he constructs the world intowhich he externalizes himself.  In the process of externalization, he projects his own meanings into reality.  Symbolic universes, which proclaim that allreality is humanly meaningful and call upon the entirecosmos to signify the validity of human existence, constitute the farthest reaches of this projection.”

Well said, eh?.  My perspective is that we humans have an umvelt, i.e., an inner world, filled with self generated information much more than perceptual or even remembered information, and that this umvelt has come to be dominated by culturally transmitted information, i.e., what Berger and Luckmann call a symbolic universe.  To say that we externalize this umvelt and that we project our meanings into a self-, or better, selves-created reality is, I think, quite apt.

Berger and Luckmann also discuss how we reify these creations.  A good word that, ‘reify’, meaning to make something abstract real and solid.  One example of this comes from psychology where researchers might pose a construct and then assume it is real; any number of examples exist like Freud’s ego, a vague and ill-used concept that many think is a real thing.  Another example comes from physics where theorists derive some mathematical objects that may describe reality but are not in fact manifest in reality, like quarks.  Berger and Luckmann write that we humans create and populate symbolic universes and then forgetting that they are our own selves-creations, assume that they are real, i.e., we reify our our arbitrary forms and ideas into something thought to be actual, to truly exist independently of our minds.

I see a good example of this on my drive to town.  A sign advertising a church program says that “The universe follows god’s will”, but I think it is more accurate and less reified to reverse the terms, “God follows the universe’s ‘will’.”  As a way of illustrating this, a recent wind storm blew the church sign down.  Was the universe following god’s will or vice versa, was god’s will following or mirroring in some people’s minds the universe’s particular action?  Attribution is best done, I think, carefully and without reification.

I am also thinking a good deal these days about the frailty of cultural transmission (like how is it that so many Americans accept our President’s character as healthy and his actions as just and true?  We certainly lost something somewhere in the transmission of common moral and ethical sense).  Berger and Luckmann discuss a couple of reasons for this.   One is that socialization is rarely complete.  Well, yes, as I posted recently, I rejected the socially transmitted value specifying that beatniks are bad and racial discrimination is okay (see post 5/21/19).  The glory here is that each generation generally accepts what the previous one passes on but specifically examines certain aspects that seem out of kilter with current understood realities (remembering that these realities are selves-created).  We might call these critical moments (a metaphorical reification?) inflection points, and these come about for many reasons large and small, and especially through contact with people who think differently.

Another reason is that cultural transmissions sometimes involve information of some complexity, subtlety and nuance, and this necessitates that the transmission is simplified, because, as Berger and Luckmann write, “since human beings are frequently stupid, institutional meanings tend to become simplified in the process of transmission”.  Some may not be able to understand the deeper lessons learned by our ancestors because of some intellectual or emotional lack (perhaps, say, for example, they have grown mentally lazy due to anti-intellectual attitudes or they spend too much time and energy watching sports or reality shows, or they have become too entitled to think they need to work at thinking, just for some examples). Maybe they think that their world is so different and that they are so special that old wisdom, e.g., like the truth and value of character, is garbage.  This is important because, say Berger and Luckmann, cultural progress is institutional change (institutions in a very general sense) and that is not irreversible.  So yes, fascism can return and yes, that is bad, and no, we are not powerless here because this is our own selves-creation, but we do have to pay attention to some basic principles and act and think working at intellectual integrity (remember the words Sam sings in Casablanca, “the fundamental things apply as time goes by”).  Travel on.

A cultural shift or variation? Cowboys and the Confederate flag.

On today’s edition of cultural shifts in my lifetime I want to talk first about cowboys and then the Confederate flag as we ponder whether these have been progressive cultural shifts enlivening some value, e.g., historical truth, or simply a widening cultural pool more inclusive of realistic imagery.  (While I would hope humans are getting ‘better’, I am afraid the data do not support that thesis at this time).  And personal disclaimer:  I am not a cowboy; I have ridden a horse only twice in my life.  But I have been learning about them ever since I grew up in the 50s and watched TV.  In those early days cowboys, at least those who had starring roles, were upstanding, polite gentlemen mostly in white hats, e.g., Hopalong Cassidy (his was the first TV brand lunchbox), Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Cisco Kid, etc.  I personally always preferred their sidekick, Gabby Hayes, maybe not so conventionally upstanding but authentic and honest, a gentleman in all but speech and there he may have been a mite ‘cantankerous’, and whose hat was tolerably battered and dark.  However, he was a loyal friend to our hero and he could cook.  Yes, cook, and you never saw our hero stir a pot, much less wash it.

Roy Rogers was very popular.  Again I liked Gabby or his sidekick, Pat; they were a bit off kilter.  Roy was a force for orthodoxy; consider this code for his cowboy club:

 

  1. Be neat and clean.
  2. Be courteous and polite.
  3. Always obey your parents.
  4. Protect the weak and help them.
  5. Be brave but never take chances.
  6. Study hard and learn all you can.
  7. Be kind to animals and take care of them.
  8. Eat all your food and never waste any.
  9. Love God and go to Sunday school regularly.
  10. Always respect our flag and our country.

 

Well, let’s think about the reality of some of these. Cowboys were not neat and clean by the standards of many; they lived, after all, with cows on the trail, far from baths, etc.  And they had some reputation for, shall we say, rough behavior.  I remember an old show Rawhide (where Clint Eastwood first made his name as Rowdy Yates) where all the cowboys were clean shaven, wore clean clothes, etc., yet they lived out on the trail.  And they were all on their best behavior.

I particularly took exception to number 3: always obey your parents.  Always?  Sure, I think young children should obey their parents, but cultural progress requires disobedience, as does adulthood, come to think of it.  (Remember my recent post on beatniks and think about how we achieved civil rights, e.g., female suffrage and equality under the law for Afro-American, for all in this country, against the wishes of many parents).  Of course newer manifestation of the cowboy way has been their stubborn moral independence—think about Robert Redford’s role in Electric Horseman, his respect for his horse, and his revolt against corporate immorality.  Number 8 got me in trouble because I ate all my food and became fat kid.  Number 9 ignores the truth of skepticism and number 10 asked us to be willfully ignorant of our contemporaneous immoral actions abroad in the 50s and 60s under the Dulles brothers and then our corruption in waging the Viet Nam war in addition to the reactionary forces marshaled against civil rights.

So I deemed that Roy’s cowboy way was inadequate to dealing with the complexities of reality and growing up and neglected the reality that cowboys are gritty realists.  We have had many iterations over the years, thinking about TV shows, Gunsmoke and Bonanza, and movies, High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma (the original) but eventually producers and writers began to embrace a more realistic view, so that we have the spaghetti westerns leading to Clint Eastwood’s magnificent film, Unforgiven. Cowboys were dirty, both physically and morally; not bad, mind you, just messy.  I recently learned from Wikipedia that many of these films are considered ‘revisionist westerns’; they portrayed cowboys as the complex creatures they were and are (and as we all are).  Even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid showed our heroes as on the other side of the law, as lovable as they were.

It seems that more recently the image of cowboys has become even more realistic, even rebellious, gritty and dark.  Think about the Highwaymen with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson.  Consider the novels by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men. Blood Meridianand All the Pretty Horses. Now real cowboys, not drugstore or suburban cowboys, have probably changed little over the years except as the culture in general has changed, e.g., mechanization, availability of information, etc.  They still treasure nature and life outdoors, they still prefer the solitude of wide-open spaces, and they chafe at constraints and interference.

In terms of our cultural representations, my question is whether the changes in this expansion from the sanitized visions of my childhood to the more realistic versions of today constitute a progressive shift or merely a more inclusive variation as the pool of images expands?  I tend to think the former because the naïve versions cannot be repeated, at least not without a heavy dose of irony or parody.  Consider the original TV series of The Lone Ranger and the recent movie The Lone Ranger (with Johnny Depp as a mystical jester in Tonto).  A show depicting a hero of yesteryear would be hopelessly naïve and laughable.

The cultural differences between a shift or a variation in cowboy imagery are not really a serious matter, more a literary interest than anything else, but now consider the imagery of the Confederate flag.  In a recent conversation someone uttered the old phrase that history is written by the winners and I disagreed, saying look at our Civil War, then the racist flood that wiped out Reconstruction (watch Henry Louis Gates’ wonderful 2 part documentary on PBS if you want to cry over the possibility for an equitable and just society that America threw away with the birth of Jim Crow and the Klan), and the continuing narrative even to today that the Confederacy was an heroic society and morally correct cause.  (This is currently a big deal here in southwest Virginia after the Charlottesville neo-Nazi march and the ongoing effort to keep the Rebel flag in public displays like the annual Christmas parade.  Jeez.)  The defeated South re-wrote that history in order to reinstate white supremacy bolstered by the image of their flag representing the noble people and their cause.  And for a long time that has been orthodoxy written by amoral losers, not winners. To be clear, after watching Gates’ documentary, I understand that the winners buried their moral authority under political expediency and wrapped in their own racism.  And I understand from this development that the Confederate flag was not a big deal until the period from the 1890s to 1930s when Southern leaders promoted segregation and racial injustice by erecting many monuments and flying this flag, and then the flag was again rejuvenated to combat civil rights and more recently, cultural diversity and justice.

So consider the cultural evolution (manipulation?) of the Confederate flag, progressive shift or expanding variable pool? For a brief time recently I thought that the flag and its accouterments were being relegated to historical museums. The old argument that the Civil War was over states’ rights had finally been clearly debunked through excellent historical research and the morally repulsive reality of slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, etc. was finally being broadcast in the light of day (see my post about The Half Has Never Been Toldon 7/31/17 & 11/23/18). However, now with the resurgence of a racist nationalism here and in Europe, I have to wonder if we have only expanded the cultural pool to include more realistic narratives and the old distorted narratives continue to thrive albeit in mutated form.  Racism is like the measles; it lives on and will spread dangerously unless many of us are inoculated against it.

Earlier I said that we could not go back to the days of naïve cowboy imagery; The Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy can only ride again in satire.  I had trouble thinking of analogous renderings of Confederacy and white racism but my wife reminded me of Spike Lee’s excellent film, BlacKkKlansmanand then I remembered the treatment of the Klan in the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?   Read, if you haven’t already, the surreal satire by Paul Beatty, The Sellout.  A bit later I went further back in time to remember Mel Brooks’ wonderful and early satire, Blazing Saddles.

My final point here is that I will be certain we have made progress regarding the Confederate flag when fictional narratives about that facet of American life and history can only be carried forth in parody and satire, when we can no longer take seriously, only satirically, the claims embodied in the Confederate flag, and along with this, the violence by its proponents disappears under the heavy, heavy weight of moral condemnation.  You say I am a dreamer?  Well, I am not the only one, as my friend John used to say.  Or as Captain Picard said so well, “Make it so”. Travel on.

Post script to our wandering cousins (and their genetic streams)

Shortly after I posted about our wandering cousins, intrepid NYT science reporter Carl Zimmer posted story about a newly identified population called Ancient Paleo-Siberians:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/05/science/native-americans-genetics-siberia.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage&section=Science.  The story is a lengthy one and I do not have the time to render it clearly here, but the gist is that geneticists looking at different populations in Siberia and in North America have found a complex story of migration, populations mixing, populations disappearing, etc.  By and large the current Siberians have little genetics in common with Siberians of the long past or with native Americans today.  Geneticists have found a group from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago that seem to have played some role in peopling the Americas called the Ancient Paleo-Siberians.  Current native Americans derive about 75% of their DNA from this group who have largely disappeared.

The geneticists and anthropologists and paleontologists are working on different explanations and wondering how to gather more data to resolve their differences. Very difficult to find fossils in that area, especially since after the last ice age the land bridge between Asia and North American is underwater and the rest is frozen.  But given the recent news stories I began to ponder the facts of populations arising and subsiding through multiple migrations back and forth.

In prehistoric times we are talking about changes over thousands of years; in modern times we are talking about days, months and a year or two.  The prejudices against breeding between groups may have lessened in some places but continues on in others, and I suspect that much of the reaction against migrants and refugees is more about sexual mixing than economic realities.   Immigrants contribute to social and economic vitality in short order, even making important contributions on many levels, so the complaints about them using resources etc. must be a smokescreen for other concerns, e.g., group racial identity.

Only problem there is that group racial identity is more a political instrument for gaining and consolidating power than a valid concern over any genetic differences which are at most miniscule.  So I wonder if Ancient Paleo-Siberians, Neandertals, Denisovans, Ancient North Siberians, Inuits and Mayans back in the day before their cultures established political structures and functions showed concerns over the influx of a new group.  Siberia to us seems rather forbidding but back in prehistoric times was a resource rich environment.  Plus there were just not that many people back then; the overcrowding we experience as normal was not known.  So long as hunting grounds were separate or even shared like the Native Americans did in our own valley here in SW Virginia, I doubt that many problems erupted.

Another pondering:  The story of Romeo and Juliet is iconic for the triumph and tragedy of love between groups. As our species evolved, when did emotional bonds and attachment surmount sexual attraction to become a dominant force in which the love between two people erased their concerns about group differences?  I think that was a great day in our history, even if different problems then arose.

One of the tropes characterizing modern times is the speed with which cultural change takes place, and I think that also applies to group mixing, whether ethnic or racial or cultural.  Groups adhere together only so long, whether it is a decade or a millennium, and then boundaries begin to blur and break down as they mix with another group. That seems to me a basic fact of life on Gaia.  Only physical isolation stops this process and even then not for long.

So when the nationalist cretins march to promote their own group’s solidarity (as they did in Charlottesville) and, by implication at least, superiority, I know that they are doomed to in-breeding catastrophes.  Indeed, they are already in-breeding catastrophes of the cultural sort.  Our hope is that humans continue as they have done since the dawn of our kind, wandering and meeting new people, learning and developing new ideas, and sharing the planet as best we can (which is better than we are doing now).  As always, travel on.