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While We Still Have Time

In spite of the grimness of the times in which we live, there is still hope. If you feel, like I do, that the usual discourse about matters of critical concern tends to be superficial, misguided, and false, then you might find some solace and inspiration here. I will try to offer insight and a holistic perspective on events and issues, and hopefully serve as a catalyst for raising the level of dialogue on this planet.

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Location: Madison, Wisconsin, United States

I was born in 1945, shortly before atom bombs were dropped on Japan. I served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971. I earned master's degrees in Economics and Educational Psychology, and certificates in Web Page Design and as a Teacher of English as a Second Language. I followed an Indian guru for eight years, which immersed me in meditative practices and an attitude of reaching a higher level of being. A blog post listing the meditative practices I have pursued can be seen here.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Cognitive dissonance

A couple of weeks ago when I was leaving my abode I was confronted by a man who flashed a badge at me, indicating he was a police "authority." He asked if I recognized a person whose mug shots were in a folder he carried. I told him no, and he persisted, aggressively asking more questions about whether I recognized the person in the pictures. I told him I would have to see the wanted man in person, but didn’t recognize him. He angrily walked across the hall and began beating on the door of another apartment, rang the doorbell, and pulled back and forth on the doorknob. Someone answered, and I walked away, having better things to do.

It’s not every day that one gets approached by law enforcement. At least not yet. It took a few days for it to sink in, but I found this experience a pretty good microcosm of American life. The presumed detective was Hispanic, and was about five feet-six inches tall. Even in "liberal" Madison, Wisconsin, these are factors that would place him in a position of disadvantage, of relative inferiority to his peers. A person of high character and sense of self would be able to take these challenges in stride, but that, unfortunately, is not the norm in these challenging times.

Every person who lives in this society is faced with the same problem: this is a mass system, and we are all just one person, trying to live lives with meaning, self-worth, and social value. In terms of the needs hierarchy of Abraham Maslow, we are attempting to move to higher levels of fulfillment. The predicament in which the United States finds itself is that we are stuck in the lower end of the needs hierarchy: sex, power, and money. Maslow referred to these needs as deficiency needs - basic to human survival. They have to be met before we can rise to the higher needs of love, esteem, self-actualization, and even enlightenment.

Because we have an economic system that divides reward in a pathologically disproportionate manner, poverty is a growing phenomenon. Because we have an economic system that requires continual growth in output for its very survival, protection of the environment has to be downplayed, if not ignored. Physical survival is now a concern for not just the poor and middle classes, but for the human species as a whole.

Because sexuality is not integrative to a mass industrial system, it is seen along a spectrum between two extremes: the forbidden fruit, and a form of attainment - the more and "better" engaged in, the more attained. Each extreme depends on the other for its existence. There would be no attainment if it weren’t the forbidden fruit, and it must be forbidden because it is an attainment. This is why there are so many scandals among religious extremists, and why so many former libertines become religious fanatics.

In the convoluted times in which we live, the same goes for money and power. As John Steinbeck said in "The Winter of Our Discontent," there are two kinds of money: no money and not enough money. America’s corporations and political elite have painted themselves into the corner of trying to have it all. Mahatma Gandhi once said that the entire universe is not big enough to contain the greed of one person. It is now crowded with the greed of millions of people, all vying for the not-so-holy grail of all the money and power in the cosmos, and more, since there is never enough.

Religion would seem to have a moderating effect on this pathology, but the traditional Judeo-Christian faiths have been overwhelmed by the institutional imperatives of the mass material system. The vacuum is now being filled by a formerly fringe element: hysterical Christianity. Sometimes known as evangelical, sometimes as fundamentalist, and sometimes as "The Christian right," this phenomenon works in parallel to its secular counterpart: zealous pursuit of money and power, marginalization and elimination of opponents, and pretending that large parts of reality do not exist.

The cognitive dissonance the United States is now undergoing in regard to the twin scandals of the war in Iraq and the practice of torture in various places around the world is something that we will be burdened with for some time to come. Because an increasingly rapacious economic and political elite will become absolutely and relatively smaller over time, with more and more people moved to lower levels of participation and reward, the greed model of existence will increasingly be called into question. Because environmental degradation will get worse over time in the rapacious system, the suffering and death it will cause will also increase. Eventually the dissonance will reach a critical mass point, and one of the cognitions will have to yield.

"Leftists" bemoan the propaganda power of the corporate news and entertainment media to suppress the dissonance, but this is a only partial analysis . No propaganda has the power to clean up the environment. No propaganda has the power to make war a meaningful method of human interaction. No propaganda has the power to create a sustainable economic system. And no propaganda has the power to move people and societies to higher levels of need fulfillment. As the power elites go to greater extremes to suppress cognitive dissonance, real problem solving gets delayed, and dissonance increases. Eventually the lies will become too obvious.

This progression has been going on for a long time. The ascension of the Bush crime family is a perfect phase in this progression, a marker of how far along the system is in its march to critical mass. Can we have a more absurd regime to preserve the unpreservable? It would seem not, but these are pretty absurd times. Time, the arbiter of all truth and untruth, will tell.

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