October 31, 2008

Wired and Alientated

From Group Dynamics by Stephen Gislason

I was born in 1943 and grew up with the communications and computing technologies that dominate the 21st century world. I enjoyed most aspects of this development and would consider myself to be an advanced user. As a pro-technology observer, however, I have increasing misgivings. I have been assembling some essential ideas to understand group dynamics and consider some negative aspects of communications, computing and the internet.

Here is an exerpt from the book:

As the media world becomes more complex and more demanding the modern citizen may become more unhappy and confused. Many nice and smart people value the natural world and celebrate opportunities to reconnect with their “inner self” and nature. Carl Jung suggested: “Too much man makes a sick animal. Too much animal makes a sick man.”

News reports contain enough bad news to make any viewer despair but not enough information to understand what has really happened and what relevance events have to the viewer's own life. Clearly, more discrimination and restraint are needed in reporting news rather than less. Clearly, moral outrage does not change human behavior, but is one the innate features of the human mind. Real progress begins when we drop the moral outrage and get on with fixing whatever is broken, knowing that the job is ongoing and possibly endless.

Fortunes are made in computing, software and telecommunications. The technology evolves rapidly. Better access to information is a decisive advantage to humans who have social and economic opportunity. The progress from voice contact to data exchange to visual images via television utilized different technologies in the 20th century and merge in the 21st century in common pathways. Cable companies are competing with telephone companies and satellite companies want to replace both. Since wire-based communications depend on a flimsy infrastructure of poles and lines, wireless communications is the future of connectivity. Long distance may utilize fiber optic cables that connect cities underground but digital radio will be best for short distance communication.

The business leaders of the information age are highly competitive and believe that they are in a race. The race has only to do with business competition and profits. The world would be a better place if everyone slowed down and made more gradual transitions from one state to another. There is no race. There is nowhere to go. We are already here. Who is fooling whom?

There are some potential benefits. There are some hazards. Most internet users will have limited ability to understand how to find the best information and will default to slogans and seek entertainment. Social networking sites are popular because they are free and entertaining. The face book idea is that you can advertise yourself, acquire friends and become a friend of many others. The real effect is that the meaning of friend is deflated. Real friends are rare and need to be cherished. Virtual friend are not friends at all. There is a possibility that meaningful relationships can develop after online contact, but this is not probable. There is a risk that your personal information may be used against you.

People worry about loss of privacy but another danger is that a sicker human animal may emerge who is comfortable in virtual reality but disoriented and destructive in the real world. Nice people watching TV in their living room are already more comfortable in the virtual world of television programming and are often confused about what is really going on. Television programming ranges from the sublime to the psychotic. The sublime presentation includes intelligent exploration of the planet earth, its animals, plants and people. Science can be accessible to everyone and even the most abstruse concepts, when creatively presented, can be understood by most viewers.

News reports and much TV journalism wobbles between intelligently informative reporting and tediously banal, misleading commentary. Some TV programming is frankly demented and I worry that less discriminating viewers will take the weird stuff too seriously.

Since TV is a mass media, there is implicit understanding that half the population has an IQ below 100 and has limited knowledge and limited ability to understand complex issues. Too many programs assume that viewer is semi-literate, uneducated and 9 years old. TV journalism is inherently deceptive since many programs appear to be informative but only provide brief introductions to subjects and inadequate information for proper understanding. Bias is common if not inevitable. In the worst case, there is an intention to control consensus using the blunt tools of propaganda. The perception of an audience with limited intelligence is, to some extent, a self-fulfilling prophesy.

If you examine network TV programming closely, you find short clips lasting seconds rather than minutes. Scenes shift recklessly in a most unnatural manner. Somehow, our visual brain tracks this erratic flow with little or no complaint. The whole point of commercial television is to make your mind available to be programmed by the sponsor and to implant key messages in the viewer. The sponsors track the audience’s behavior in their sales figures and they buy more TV time when viewers obediently buy their goods.

Memes are brief messages that propagate through human populations. Products are sold by the presentation of brief images and statements that are easy to copy. Humans copy and respond to memes that have been propagated by advertising. Thus, Macdonald’s became a world-dominating fast food company by skillful marketing; the inferior quality of the food is not an impediment to success. After years of worldwide advertising, you just have to show the brand name “Coca Cola” and your sale is secure. Coke marketing is based on saturating commercial and domestic environments with coke logos. Coke drinkers pay for the advertising that programs them to drink coke.

You could argue that marketing and advertising theory and practice is all about propagating copies of slogans and symbols. A good advertisement creates brand name identification and links product, brand name with something already established as desirable, right and true. If your market is men you just have to invent a catchy name such as XCiter and then link your product with an image of a young, beautiful woman, preferably lightly clad.

Political propaganda uses the same techniques, repeating key words and short slogans until a majority of people repeat these messages to each other. After memes infect a large number of people, they reach a consensus. Once learned, a slogan will be repeated for many years, even for generations. When repeated, memes engender a reassuring feeling of group membership. You cannot explain the replication of large systems such as ideologies, religions and rules of conduct as “memes” although belief systems are often built from a collection of memes that are copied and repeated.

“Short” is a keyword when you study the propagation of memes. Short often means milliseconds. Within the duration of one second, a message can be received, a cognitive bias created, and a decision can be made. In television editing, clips are seconds long and one minute is a common duration of a commercial. Neuroscientists often demonstrate with brain monitoring that decisions are made quickly even before the information received becomes conscious. Not all decisive information becomes conscious or is available for slower evaluation through selftalk or conversation with others.

With multi-channels and 24 hours of potential programming on each satellite or cable TV channel, the format of people talking spontaneously or answering questions has emerged as time fillers. Talk and interview shows express a range of interests, attitudes and beliefs. One desirable result is that a viewer might recognize a diversity of human expression and may, hopefully, develop more tolerance for different point of view. Even when you dislike someone on TV, there is shift toward more tolerance, especially when other people model polite and rational ways of expressing disagreement.

A.O. Scott, film reviewer for the New York Times summarized his view of television programming in the 20th century:" …much of what's on television, whatever its scale or country of origin is garbage…even as disparate cultures can sample and appreciate each others stupidity, each one remains stupid in its own way, and no one's stupidity is inherently superior to anybody else's… in the global village, we are all idiots watching our reflections in a box."

October 29, 2008

Failing Corporations

Failing Corporations: the economic events of the past few weeks were dramatic, but did not surprise me or others who appreciate human cognitive limitations or deplored the depredations of the US administration in the past 8 years. This is not to argue the US is entirely responsible for the global crisis. It is to argue that humans are very small, furry creature who build large systems that sooner or later become uncontrollable. This a law of nature.

I am updating my coverage of failing corporations in my book Group Dynamics and wanted to share this discussion:

In the US, economic booms of the 20th century subsided abruptly on several occasions. In the year 2000, enlarging, merging corporations began to lay off employees by the thousands as economic growth slowed. Large organizations went bankrupt, mergers failed to work, the incompetence and corruption of management was revealed to all. A second bust began in 2007 leading to a deep US recession and chaos in world equity, commodity and currency markets in 2008. Some pundits suggested that recession was no longer a temporary condition and the recovery of economic growth in the 21st century may not be possible. The 2008 collapse of financial institutions in the US and elsewhere could be attributed to many layers of “leverage” that concealed the basic fact that individuals and corporations were surviving on loans they could not repay.

In a remarkable reversal of ideology, Alan Greenspan, the US Federal Reserve chairman for 18 years admitted to a congressional committee that he “made a mistake” in trusting that free markets could regulate themselves without government oversight. Greenspan conceded a more serious flaw in his own philosophy that unfettered free markets sit at the root of a superior economy. He stated: “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms. This crisis, however, has turned out to be much broader than anything I could have imagined.”

The desirability of unlimited corporate growth and mergers is doubtful unless enlarging corporations re-organize around small, semi-autonomous groups. The inefficiencies and failures of enlarging human systems is a product of the distinct cognitive limitations of the participants. While smart and apparently well qualified people become CEOs of large corporations their limitations eventually become obvious.

One paradox is that experts are people who focus their attention on details of small parts of large and complex systems, but do not understand how the whole system works. Another paradox is that managers develop competence in smaller systems and advance to the level of their incompetence as the company grows. Even the smartest, best-informed human cannot comprehend how large complex systems work overall.

Politicians usually do not have any training in managing large systems. They tend to be inexperienced managers with simple ideas and slogans instead of advanced knowledge and practical experience. The inventible result is poor judgment, incompetence and in the worst case, reckless mismanagement of human and financial resources.

There is little benefit when governments employ experienced CEOs from big corporations since they are often more expert at concealing their limitations and hiding their incompetence than they are at managing a large system. In reference to state governments in the USA, circa 2003, Princeton professor, Krugman suggested:

”State governments turned into banana republics in part because voters didn't realize that a charming, personable chief executive can also be an irresponsible opportunist, seeking political advantage through policies that ensure a fiscal crisis on someone else's watch. Now the same governing style has moved to Washington and this time there's no safety net.”

While a systems expert may have an outline or overview of how the whole system is organized, the outline is often too abstract and general to really explain how the whole system actually works. Corporate organization charts show a static model. Lines connect the different departments and simple notations show who reports to whom. The all important dynamics are missing. A basic component of systems theory is corrective feedback, a dynamic that is essential to correcting bad decisions and adapting to changing circumstances.

System analysts have emerged with approaches to understanding how the parts work together, but troubleshooting a complex system that is failing is difficult. Humans are always the irrational components in large systems. As corporations become larger and increasingly dysfunctional, conflicts increase within and hostility increases toward other corporations. Customers often face inflexible rules and are treated rudely or face punitive measures if they do not conform to company policies.

Sorkin described the Directors' Consortium, a program developed by the Wharton School, the Stanford Law School and the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business for CEOs of large US corporations. He stated:” The class was not faring well. On its accounting exam the average score was 32 percent… “As I look around the room I'm not sure if this is an executive education program or a support group," said Joseph A. Grundfest, a professor of law at Stanford University. He empathized with the CEOs saying: "I feel your pain."

Collins, writing in Fortune magazine’s annual addition that lists the top 500 US corporations, reflected on the ephemeral nature of big corporations. Only 71 companies of the 500 best listed in 1955 were still in business in 2007. Most of the 2000 companies that made the list in subsequent years have dropped out. Collins blames managers for the failures. He points to examples of corporations that faltered, adapted and continued on a successful path because of new and inspired leadership. While managers are often at fault for corporate failures, I would argue that even the best qualified, most honest managers are just people with distinct limitations who cannot cope with the relentless recurrence and complexity of the problems they face.

Brooks commented on the current crisis in the US economy, October 2008:

“Economic models and entire social science disciplines are premised on the assumption that people are mostly engaged in rationally calculating and maximizing their self-interest. But during this financial crisis, that way of thinking has failed spectacularly. Taleb not only has an explanation for what’s happening, he saw it coming. In The Black Swan, Taleb wrote: “The government-sponsored institution Fannie Mae, when I look at its risks, seems to be sitting on a barrel of dynamite, vulnerable to the slightest hiccup. Globalization creates interlocking fragility.” He warned that while the growth of giant banks gives the appearance of stability, in reality, it raises the risk of a systemic collapse — when one fails, they all fail. Taleb believes that our brains evolved to suit a world much simpler than the one we now face… our perceptual biases distort our thinking: our tendency to see data that confirm our prejudices more vividly than data that contradict them; our tendency to overvalue recent events when anticipating future possibilities; our tendency to spin concurring facts into a single causal narrative; our tendency to applaud our own supposed skill in circumstances when we’ve actually benefited from dumb luck. And looking at the financial crisis, it is easy to see dozens of errors of perception. Traders misperceived the possibility of rare events. They got caught in social contagions and reinforced each other’s risk assessments. They failed to perceive how tightly linked global networks can transform small events into big disasters.”

After reading about Taleb in Brook’s article, I found him online and enjoyed his notes. He had given a name, the triplet of opacity, to three of the cognitive features that I have described as limiting conditions in human nature:

1.An illusion of understanding of current events
2.A retrospective distortion of historical events
3.An overestimation of factual information, combined with an overvalue of the intellectual elite

October 25, 2008

Why Democrats and Republicans?

My interest is not so much in the details of how candidates present themselves or what political parties believe to be true, I want to derive some basic principles about politics that would apply to most if not all situtations. No pundit has asked me to express an opinion of the upcoming US election from a Canadian perspective, but I will add my preference in any case: If you want to US to survive the current financialand moral crisis, vote for Obama and Biden. Reduce the Republican party to a small minority in Congress.

I wanted to share my acount of party politics from Surviving Human Nature. This is an account designed to inform a visitor from another planet:

Politics in modern democracies have revealed basic human tendencies that require deep understanding. The question is: “Why are their democrats and republicans, liberals and conservatives?” Why doesn’t everyone have the same preference and come to the same conclusions, given most of the facts? Why isn't everybody nice?

A conventional view of political opinion recognizes as spread of political preference using the metaphor left to right. The moderate left is equated with liberal and socialist and the moderate right is equated with “free-enterprise” and conservative. Liberal-Socialist describes a tendency to share and conservative expresses a tendency to self-serving policies and hoarding.

The extreme left is considered to be communism and the extreme right is fascism. In practice, communism and fascism end up in the same place – dictatorships. In Britain, Canada and the USA, right and left political parties dominated political contests and have tended toward the center as time has past.

In Canada, the New Democratic Party (NDP) and a Quebec separatist party offered options. Although NDP parties elected governments in a few Canadian provinces they were never able to beat the conservative and liberal parties in federal elections. Each political party has members who are right or left, but moderates prevail, as they should. The extremes are populated by authoritarian humans who tend to use intimidation, coercion and punishment to achieve domination. They want to become dictators if they achieve political power.

Moderates tend to be more conciliatory and will use the threat of force but avoid combat unless attacked. This tendency toward the center represents, hopefully, an evolution in political processes.

In Canada, the federal Conservative Party was obliterated after forming an unpopular government, leaving the country with a choice of a Liberal Government or voting for one of the minority parties. This would be equivalent to the Republican party in the US being reduced to a few seats in the Senate. After many years, an unstable coalition of more right wing parties revived a conservative party.

Clearly, traditional political polarization is unstable and new approaches to democratic government may be possible and desirable. In the both the USA and Canada reform parties have emerged to offer an alternative to a dichotic political choice. "Reform" refers to any point of view that does not fit comfortably in the neatly divided liberal-conservative camps.

The main arguments between the left-socialist and right-conservative are about the distribution of resources, the use of force and the regulation of individual activity. The dialectic can be traced back to root group dynamics and the ever-changing balance between self-interest and group interest, between belligerence and peaceful negotiation. In the USA in early 2004,similar differences were described as “cultural” and political rivalry was renamed ‘culture wars.”

Primate groups all tend toward the center, but food scarcity and threats from the outside are stresses that disturb the status quo. There is a mixture of group and individual mandates and a healthy primate group is flexible, rearranging priorities and ideology as circumstances demand. Groups are larger and more egalitarian when resources are abundant. Larger groups divide into smaller groups and become edgy and competitive when resources are scarce. Groups always compete with one another, but temporary truces and coalitions keep the peace most of the time.

Political theories, especially the revolutionary ones have always been wrong. Marx was trying to solve the problems of poor workers oppressed by authoritarian, industrial leaders and governments. But the application of Marxism in Russia was ignorant of human nature. His theories were untested and arbitrary. We now know what happens when you violently overthrow an unjust but working system and replace it with an ideology that intends to redistribute wealth and make everyone equal. You get a political and economic system that does not work and you get tyranny, cruelty and poverty.

Humans have innate tendencies that will not change. Any political-economic theory that proposes to fundamentally change the way humans operate will fail.

The only lasting way to change political and economic systems is to allow them to become more congruent with human nature. Successful political systems must work with and not oppose human nature to become stable over a long-term measured in thousands of years and not four-year terms of office. Stability will require a high degree of autonomy for local groups and tolerance for diversity among these groups.

Meaningful political changes emerge slowly and are built from the bottom up rather than imposed from the top down. Citizens of the 21st century can be quite sure that top-down solutions will not work and the tendency toward centralized political and economic control will need to be modified or abandoned.

Each citizen of a democracy does have a responsibility to protect his or her freedom and right to life by insisting on bottom-up solutions to problems. This means that the local community decides what is in its best interests; not a distant and autocratic authority.

See Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

October 23, 2008

Prototype America: War Versus the Truth 2008

Events in the US during the past month have brought many issues into clear focus. I have summarized some onservations I and others made as the Bush administration led the US to the great implosion, dominating world news in Oct 2008. The "superpower" is no longer super nor even powerful.

See my Blog Tuesday, December 20, 2005
Prototype America: War versus the Truth
A View From Outside the Cauldron

In the USA, there is a constant and vigorous debate. The most militarized nation in the world is prepared to meet many different kinds of attack. The USA, with real and imaginary enemies, is a great experiment in how a democratic nation handles threats from within and without. In the best, case the American constitution champions human rights and individual freedom. However, militarism is by nature anti-democratic.

All over the planet, you can choose between democracy and military dictatorship. The trick to preserving democracy seems to be the maintenance of a citizen-accountable political leadership and a subservient military that is prevented from acting inside the country, except to defend the country from external attack and to train.

The Bush version of democracy and civil rights is paradoxically fascist – a militaristic attitude that would suppress dissent and would punish all who disagree with him in the name of patriotism and national security.

When Islamic militants from Saudi Arabia attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, September 11 2001, fear, anger and confusion was the initial and understandable emotional response. Soon, however, government regulators, police and military the entire country into a state of siege. The attack response deprived citizens of ordinary rights and talk of “war” inflamed anger and excused a deluge of paranoid speculation and irrational thinking.

Fortunately, the US is a country of diverse interests, beliefs and capacities. The least intelligent responses are dominant in the early stages of crisis, but are followed more intelligent and better-informed discourse. Within 48 hours it was known that 19 Arab men, 15 from Saudi Arabia but none from Iraq, hijacked 4 commercial airplanes and crashed three of them into three targets, committing suicide in, from their point-of-view, a just cause - a holy war against Americans who have directly and indirectly threatened and killed people of the Islamic faith.

This was a limited and specific attack, planned several years in advance that caused damage and loss of life in New York but did not threaten the rest of country and would not be repeated for some time, if ever. The hijackers were not overtly fanatical but appeared to be ordinary people who spent up to five years living and going to school in the USA.

American leaders appeared to lack insight into the deep and ancient origins of the attack and spoke only of their revenge, using military action. They suspended citizens’ privileges and moved the country close to a state of military occupation. President Bush declared “war on terrorism”. He ignored the simple fact that the attackers were from Saudi Arabia and pursued an old family feud instead by attacking Iraq. The average America appeared to be gullible to government propaganda and accepted Iraq as the scapegoat chosen as the sacrificial victim. The gullible Americans who supported this lethal enterprise have paid dearly in money, lost American lives,and lost credibility in most countries on planet earth. They have incurred a Karmic debt that will take many generations to settle.

None of these slogans used by the US administration bear much relationship to the truth, but humans operate from slogans and mindlessly pursue death and destruction, believing somehow that they are on the right track. Despite the very obvious limitations of leaders and institutions, Americans, in their public persona, have difficult admitting they have made mistakes in the past and have destroyed other people’s property and lives in acts that others considered to be “American terrorism”.

The principle is that humans deny error and project blame. Human history informs us that national states would rather go to war than apologize. Each nation believes it lives up to the high standard that it imposes on others. Human conflict always involves disagreement about who is to blame and no final agreement can be achieved. Humans fight over territory, resources and status. Each party to a conflict makes claims and has arguments that favor their side. They kill each other. The arguments and claims vary but the conflict is always the same.

You could suggest that the only way out is a transcendence of arguments and claims. The more you support someone’s claims and arguments the further you are from any solution. There is no obvious and no easy path to transcendence. At least we know there is little merit and no salvation in competing arguments and claims. You have to leave these behind and have a look around with a clear mind. Maybe there is something you can do; maybe not.

The mechanism of great evil is that members of every group have loyalty to the group and believe, sometimes fanatically, in the claims of the group. One of the routine claims is that a common enemy must be constrained, punished and, if necessary, killed. Just as individuals have difficulty perceiving their own behavior, members of groups cannot perceive the evil they are helping to create. The worst atrocities can be committed against other groups with complete justification in the form of us and them arguments. Justification always follows a simple logic: “We are good. They are bad. Therefore, everything we do to eliminate their bad is justified.”

The moral sense of Karma includes cycles of causation that more or less follow a path of reward and punishment. With or without lawful processes, the karma of revenge and retribution continues to play a determining role in every society. The innate form of natural justice is an eye for and eye, a tooth for a tooth. Revenge is natural and to be effective must match the wrong that was committed. Human conflict has a tendency to persevere and escalate. This is a law of Karma.

At the end of 2005, Bush is characterized in a New York Times editorial as
"...an embattled president so swathed in his inner circle that he completely loses touch with the public and wanders around among small knots of people who agree with him."

By 2007 the cost of Bush’s war in Iraq was becoming clearer. Bush’s war in Iraq was based on lies and an obvious belligerence that alarmed most of the world community. War means we decided that is was necessary, permissible, inevitable that we destroy property and kill people with little or no regard for law, justices or human rights. The cost of the war was funded by loans to the US government from internal sources such as government pension plans and from foreign investors who bought US treasury bills. The cost to Iraqi citizens is not included in US accounting.

David Leonhardt, for example, writing in the NY times Jan 2007, estimated the cost to US taxpayers was $1.2 trillion and suggested that most of the problems in the US could be solved with the same amount of money with lots of cash left over to tackle world problems such as poverty, malnutrition, and infectious disease. He stated: “ In the days before the war almost five years ago, the Pentagon estimated that it would cost about $50 billion. Democratic staff members in Congress largely agreed. Lawrence Lindsey, a White House economic adviser, was a bit more realistic, predicting that the cost could go as high as $200 billion, but President Bush fired him in part for saying so. These estimates probably would have turned out to be too optimistic even if the war had gone well. But the deteriorating situation in Iraq has caused the initial predictions to be off the mark by a scale that is difficult to fathom. “

By Oct 2008, well, everyone knows what happened to the US economy.

Please see: Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

God in 2008

Discussions of God never appear in Canadian Political rhetoric, but are common in US politics. The word God is something like other words that everyone uses such as health, love, and freedom, but no one seems to understand. Here is part of the discussion I developed in my book
Religion for the 21st Century.

“My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.” Albert Einstein

Gods are invisible and secretive agents, projections of the human mind. Gods assume many forms and there is little agreement about what they look like, where they live, their likes and dislikes.

Gods are polymorphic, numerous and noumenal. Humans include Gods in their stories that attempt to explain how things got started and who controls events that happen.

Some create a God who is interested in petty gossip and enjoys punishing people who have erotic fantasies. Many Gods are angry and punitive but some Gods act like benevolent parents and friendly counselors. In the past, some Gods were friendly only if you killed innocent children or fair maidens as sacrifices.

Somehow, the Gods who enjoyed killing humans are no longer as popular as they once were; however, there remains a close connection between God and blood in the human mind. Humans kill to eat and indulge in a curious fascination with spilling blood. Religious rituals all over the planet, presumably for thousands of years have involved killing animals and fellow humans, eating their flesh, collecting and offering their blood to satisfy the bloodlust of their God. Christian communion still involves eating the blood and flesh of Christ.

Pollsters ask: do you believe in God? They report a percentage of people who answer yes. The question and its answer are meaningless.

There is neither a single God nor any consistent belief. Each religious group claims a special relationship with God, a unique history, moral superiority and special privileges. Christianity, Islam and Judaism are religious organizations that claim that their God is the one and only God. They discriminate against each other and distain people and organizations who have a different version of God or who have many Gods or no God.

No one can agree on God’s location and characteristics. God turns out to have multiple forms and contradictory characteristics. In the best case, the notion of one God is based on a distant parent grown large. In the worst case, God is another despot, supported by an intelligence agency in the sky with filing cabinets full of records on everyone who has ever lived.

While there is no real evidence for a resident, man-like God who is interested in what humans do, many religious organizations invent God as the source of their moral authority. They promote local franchises, complete with beliefs and rituals to suit their political and economic purposes. The bloody battles of the past among religious organizations recur to this day and promise to continue as long as these groups hold to their exclusive and anachronistic beliefs.

Smart and nice people thrive without believing in a Santa-Claus version of God who is keeping his list and checking it twice. Some people have denied the existence of God and placed themselves at a disadvantage when confronted by self-righteous individuals who have God on their side.

As visiting anthropologists, we recognize that belief in one or more Gods and membership in a religious organization are social commitments with social benefits. Beliefs have little or nothing to do with truth or understanding how humans and the universe work.

Everyone is free to invent his or her own God and create group inclusion and exclusion rules. When everyone has adopted a personal God, then everyone is free to claim the moral authority that God offers true believers. Without this egalitarian distribution of God’s authority, people with a sense of moral superiority remain a serious problem for rational citizens who champion a civil society. Everyone should be free to engage God in their own way.

Like Moses, I have made special preparations and often climbed heights of land with some difficulty-- mountains in BC, for example--- to have a conversation with God. This has occurred eight momentous times in my life so far.

One exceptional encounter occurred when I was meditating on a beach. I had begun one warm summer evening early when the water was calm and the sky clear. I entered Samadhi with a wonderful sense of relaxation. I became one with the rocks I was sitting on and with the water that lapped over my legs. The air seemed to thicken with world lines that channeled micro events in curved paths.

Suddenly, I heard my name called out in a giant whisper, just once. The whisper was very loud and low-pitched, but not disturbing.

The conversation that followed was all in mind with no audible component. I could ask questions and wait for answers that were delayed as long as 2 minutes. The answers were brief and concise. I stated that many groups believed they were chosen by God to have special status and privileges. I asked if she preferred one group of humans over another. God stated: ”I have no preferences.“

I stated that humans were in trouble. They fought with each and were relentlessly destructive. She informed me that she has a non-interference policy toward planet earth. None of her people are allowed near our planet.

I asked if there were any destinations or rewards away from planet earth when humans or other animals died. God relied: “No.” She stated: “Earth is a self-contained experiment in life and spontaneity. I like to watch occasionally, but never intervene.”

I asked if human astronomers and astrophysicists were on the right track with their amazing discoveries of galaxies, exploding stars, dark matter and black holes. God replied: “These exceptional humans display the kind of intelligence that interests me. I have scheduled more frequent visits to monitor your progress in understanding the dynamics of the universe. “

I asked the next obvious question about space travel. Will humans be able to locate and travel to other planets? God replied: “Humans are creatures of location, specialized to the conditions of your home planet. You will not be able travel to and adapt to another planet. You fate lies with your success or failure on planet earth.”

Needless to state, I was disappointed with the non-intervention policy. I appealed, saying that the human mind was a work in progress but there were many problems, even beyond the delusions of moral superiority that dominated human interactions. I suggested that intelligent intervention in the genome could fix the more obvious mind problems and give humans a better opportunity to thrive on earth. I appealed on behalf of all animals whose existence was in peril because of human activities.

I learned that Gods in charge of the great universe are too busy to pay much attention to planet earth. The head God is not moralistic and the non-intervention policy is strict – no interference with life on Earth or other planets. The divine being explained that Gods do not interfere with planetary life; there have only been rare exceptions.

I asked; “Can you offer some advice or guidance for humans?” But, she declined, explaining that humans are the authors of their own destiny and will rise or fall on their own merits or weaknesses. God said that that is the interesting part – to see what happens as life forms evolve.

My impression is that God gets interested in planets that host unusually advanced intelligence. God suggested the time allotment for earth was increased recently to something like 4 human minutes every 50 human years. Before, it was 4 minutes per 1,000 earth years. Of course, She works at ultra high speed and learns a lot in 4 minutes, earth-time. Unlike Job’s Yahweh, my God was feminine and, despite her policy of non interference with earth’s affairs, I felt only her benevolence. There was not a hint of criticism or blame.

From Religion for the 21st Century by Stephen J. Gislason

Democracy

Democracy

Elections are big business in the US and Canada. We have just completed another nationwide election in Canada to retrun a minority conservative government. Beside election rhetoric there are are meaningful discussions about the process of government and the value of elections as we now know them. I am rewriting a description of democracy in my book, Surviving Human Nature, and wanted to share this overview:

From Surving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys. P. J. O'Rourke

Athens, Greece is often given credit for inventing democracy. But in Athens only one in 10 residents could vote. Women could not participate and slaves had no rights. Those who did vote were often tempted to vote in favor of war. Athens flourished for a few years but the Greek empire and democracy was over within 150 years. While the Greek legacy was carried on by the Romans and spread through Europe, the real story of ancient Greece is tragic, not heroic.

In the US, George Bush and Dick Cheney made a mockery of democracy. They acted like despotic monarchs and approached other countries with a belligerent swagger. President Bush became one of the most hated of men in many countries. Of course, Bush only acted as a nominal leader, a front man for a small group of men led by vice president Cheney and his advisors.

According to Posner, in the US, the founding fathers did not want to set up a democracy but a mixed government. The presidency is the monarchical element, the Senate and Supreme Court are aristocratic elements and only the democratic element is the House of Representatives. This design has worked more or less to balance competing interests, but Bush and Cheney demonstrated that the design had become obsolete. Posner stated: "The Constitution of the United States of America is the supreme law of the United States. The United States Constitution was adopted on September 17, 1787, by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and later ratified by conventions in each U.S. state in the name of The People; it has since been amended twenty-seven times, the first ten amendments being known as the Bill of Rights. None of the amendments change the infrastucture of governance."

The US is a totally different country in the 21st century. Corporations that do not evolve with changing circumstances tend to fail. So do countries with antiquated constitutions. The question for deep thinkers is – can the organization of democratic government evolve to improve their performance and assure human rights or are humans doomed to one form or tyranny or another? One solution in the US is to close the white house and develop a better method of selecting qaulified people to administer the country.

In most countries, government is a circus of competing interests, displaying their wares in a variety of venues. The real process of government is an endless series of negotiations. Negotiated deals tend to benefit the more aggressive, influential and wealthy participants. Government as a circus is arguably better than government as a monarch’s court, but it is not ideal and may not be sustainable. All governments are inefficient and are prone to corruption.

Canada operates with a parliamentary government copied from the British Parliament. An elected body meets to discuss government performance and to pass legislation. An appointed Senate has mostly ceremonial roles, a House of Lords. You could argue that the Canadian parliament puts democratic processes on display and requires that the Prime Minster and his cabinet meet with other elected representatives on a regular basis. In 1791, Canada was a British colony. The English parliament decided on the Constitutional Act of 1791 which established the infrastructure of government. The British North America Act of 1867 established the Dominion of Canada. True Canadian autonomy was not achieved until Prime Minister Trudeau persuaded the Canadian provinces and the British parliament to pass the Canada Act in 1982 giving all constitutional and legislative authority to Canada.

The Canada Act included a Charter of Rights. Canadian constitutional principles are federalism, democracy, the rule of law, judicial independence and respect for minorities. Canada, like other countries, also has an ethos, common law and other less obvious sources of rules of conduct, social norms and expectations. Within government there are traditions that are persuasive, but not legally enforceable.

In every institution, there is a tendency to fascism, the dictatorial rule of an elite group who believe only they know what is right and true. A fascist displays innate tendencies, unmodified by learning, reasoning and devoid of compassion. The fascist promotes arguments and dissention, developing the idea that only some citizens have rights and privileges and others become outsiders who must be constrained, imprisoned, deported or eliminated.

The Bush-Cheney group in the US borrowed credibility from the elite members of the Republican party, but it became obvious that they were aspiring fascists, acting in the best tradition of aristocratic dictators. They had been elected by conservatives and right wing Christian fundamentalists who believed that their vested interests would be advanced. They were wrong. True conservatives want small government, balanced budgets and faithful application of the country’s policies and ideals. In the US, the declaration of independence and the constitution declare ideals that the Bush Cheney group ignored.

Cohen summarized the US predicament: “The nation is heading toward a constitutional showdown over the Iraq war. Congress is moving closer to passing a bill to limit or end the war, but President Bush insists Congress doesn’t have the power to do it. The war is hardly the only area where the Bush administration is trying to expand its powers beyond all legal justification. But the danger of an imperial presidency is particularly great when a president takes the nation to war, something the founders understood well. Given how intent the president is on expanding his authority, it is startling to recall how the Constitution’s framers viewed presidential power. They were revolutionaries who detested kings, and their great concern when they established the United States was that they not accidentally create a kingdom. To guard against it, they sharply limited presidential authority. The founders were particularly wary of giving the president power over war. They were haunted by Europe’s history of conflicts started by self-aggrandizing kings. John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States, stated: “absolute monarchs will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it, but for the purposes and objects merely personal.” The Constitution does make the president “commander in chief,” a title President Bush often invokes. But it does not have the sweeping meaning he suggests. The founders would have been astonished by President Bush’s assertion that Congress should simply write him blank checks for war. As opinion turns more decisively against the war, the administration is becoming ever more dismissive of Congress’s role. If the founders were looking on now, it is... George W. Bush who would seem less like a president than a king.”

Elections are often thought to be the essence of democracy, but as human groups grow larger and social organization more complex, elections become media events that preclude the ideal of citizen involvement in government. In a simple analysis, increasing size and complexity of government makes ideal democracy impossible. Eventually, democratic rights might be restored by internet technologies that permit citizens to discuss and vote directly on policy issues and legislation.

The value of elections is not so much the selection of the right people to run governments since this result is seldom achieved, but the opportunity to disrupt political oligarchies in the early stages of their development. You could argue that candidate selection for elections is so inappropriate to the task facing the elected politicians that an election lottery choosing from thoughtfully selected, highly qualified citizens would do a better job of forming governments.

An alert, well-informed citizenry and a politically independent judiciary are essential to the preservation of personal freedoms. A civil society develops multiple overlapping levels of dispute resolution with the right to appeal bad decisions that are common and inevitable when local tribunals and courts decide who is privileged and who is not.

In a civil society there must be a wealth re-distribution plan so that money and power is not concentrated in a small elite class but, at the same time, does not discourage or penalize smart people who make the extra effort to innovate and contribute to the general good.

Affluent populations need to protect themselves from attacks that originate from inside and outside the group. The need for protection appears to be persistent and relentless with no prospect in the future of any reprieve. Fascist groups within elected governments, however, typically abuse the need for national security to consolidate their power, to threaten political opposition and to suspend democratic rights and freedoms, replacing external threats with internal repression.

Humans are obligatory social animals with the delusion of independence. We know that a small number of humans will be alpha animals and lead a much larger number of humans who are followers and will not have the inclination nor the ability to "think for themselves."

We know that the audience, the "public", is made up of different groups with vested interests that conflict. We know that everyone makes up stories that support their own point of view. Everyone deceives others and there is no absolute truth. We know that some humans are bad and will harm others as a matter of course; their behavior will not be altered by rational argument or laws and must be constrained by force. Some of these bad people arrive in positions of authority and power. Some bad people are elected, even to the highest positions in government where they can do much harm without insight or remorse.

We know that the voting public contains individuals with different mental abilities and that most humans have distinct limitations on what they can and will understand.
We know that the root human struggle between self-interest and the interest of groups is ubiquitous, pervasive and is not going away. An axiom for the 21st century must be that charismatic leaders who sway large audiences with anger, demands for revenge, and blame directed specific groups are dangerous. Politicians of all persuasions want and need the ability to persuade and control large numbers of people, so that governments run by elected politicians often involve demagogues who are willing to override or suspend individual rights. This is one of the weaknesses of democracies.

A human tendency is to treat a few other humans well, members of your immediate select group, and to be suspicious of and hostile towards everyone else. Humans can learn to override this tendency and succeed to varying degrees at opening their minds to all sentient beings but this is a difficult task and only a few humans actually achieve an "open mind".

Consider some of the basic truths of language, story telling and consensus:

We value consensus-achieving activities and try to achieve some stability by using slogans and standard stories to unite the local group.

Reality configurations can be described as cultures, local, ephemeral consensus systems, encoded in language, symbols, law, art and rituals.

Cultures are perpetuated by teaching children to formulate experience in the local configuration and by renewing culture patterning through schools, churches, news, events, media and artistic representation of the local version of the really real.

A convinced member of a culture will have difficulty seeing outside his or her own culture and will treat outsiders as aliens. Aliens are treated with suspicion, fear and hostility.

The quickest way to unite a group is to declare war on aliens. After is war is declared, all citizens must comply with military values and commands. They must cease to criticize politicians and military leaders. They cannot protest without risking punishment. In effect, a government who declares war becomes a dictatorship.

Noam Chomsky, linguist, social philosopher and activist is one of the smart and nice citizens of the world who has been willing to sacrifice his personal comfort and venture forth consistently over many years to confront contentious issues with reasonable, well-informed arguments, an unshakable faith in individual freedom and a belief in the perfectibility of humans. He displays some of the best features of a sentient being fighting oppression with reason.

Commercial interests merge with political agendas to control the public mind: Chomsky would say, for example: “One factor is the power of business propaganda in the U.S. This is the country where the public relations industry was developed, where it was most sophisticated. It’s the home of the international entertainment industry, which is mainly propaganda. Huge funds are put into controlling the "public mind," …this is toward the capitalist end … there’s a huge expenditure on marketing, which is a form of manipulation and deceit... something like one-sixth of the gross domestic product goes to marketing. A large part of that is advertising. Advertising is tax-deductible, so you pay for the privilege of being manipulated and controlled."