Happiness Related to Politics


The other day I heard a report about a survey on happiness. I don’t know the exact methodology, but I found the results somewhat surprising.

Designers of the study said that conservatives reported being happy more often than liberals. They surmised that conservatives tend more often to be married and to frequently attend church than liberals, activities with a high correlation to happiness.

A somewhat more (but not entirely) suprising result was that fanatics are happier than either conservative or liberal. If you assume that fanatics are happier because their worlds are simpler, that their views are predominantly black and white, with very few grey areas, this may also be unsurprising.

I think these results are probably superficial. They probably rely on self-reporting, which is unlikely to be entirely accurate. In the case of fanatics in particular, I wouldn’t put too much trust in this survey.

Sigmund Freud made the idea that sexuality is a very large part of and influence upon our lives more widespread than ever before. In his psychiatric practice, where he was pioneering the method called psychoanalysis, he came upon the damage that sexual repression can cause, as well as evidence of pedophilia and incest which, as I understand it, he didn’t want to believe. He was, I think, ambivalent about sexual repression, knowing something of the damage it could cause, but also believing that without it society could be torn apart by anarchic impulses.

Wilhelm Reich, one of his successors, had contact with, and may have studied with Freud in the 1920s. He believed Freud’s view that sexuality was an extremely important part of human life, but took it further, and came to different conclusions from Freud.

Reich believed, as did Freud, that repression caused unhappiness for many. He went further than Freud in finding that repression didn’t affect only the mind and emotions, but also the body. His finding was that with repression the body suppressed feelings by clenching muscles. Such muscles would often become chronically tense, affecting large parts of the body. The parts of the body that were so affected he called armored. Although he was a gifted and insightful therapist in the Freudian sense, he went further than Freud by working directly on the body, working the chronically tightened muscles until they relaxed. When they did, the patient would often respond with outbursts of emotion, frequently of tears, which Reich called, “the great softener.”

Dr. Ellsworth Baker was a student of Reich’s, and applied Reich’s methods to his own treatment of patients. In Man in the Trap he tells something of Reich’s methods and views, then gives some histories of the treatments he applied to his own patients. One point of particular interest to me was Reich’s relation of sexual health to political views, as well as to behavior.

Reich saw political ideas as a sort of continuum: in the center were the two most relatively healthy groups, and other groups extended from these, having exaggerated versions of either conservative or liberal worldviews.

The natural conservative Reich considered to be probably the closest to sexual health in the civilized world. Such a person is religious, and tries to live in accordance with his religion, is involved with work and family, believes in being as self-sufficient as possible, and in responsibility for self and community.

Natural liberals may not differ a great deal from this picture, except in being more worried about the state of the world as a whole. They are not necessarily less religious-minded or family-oriented, but may worry more about things they can’t immediately control.

From these two positions come the variations that reach to the extremes on either end of the political spectrum, as Reich saw it. The extremes have their differences, but are also very much alike. The conservative extreme Reich called “black fascism”. The obvious example of this was Nazi Germany. Reich himself became a Communist in the 1920s in an attempt to combat Nazism. He may not have had great belief in the Communist program, but thought it the only political movement in Europe strong enough to combat the Nazis. The Nazis, however, were much abler at propaganda than the Communists, and we know the results of that.

The other end of the political spectrum Reich called “red fascism”. He described the two fascisms as both being mystical, but in slightly different ways. “Black fascism” was mystical about folk and blood (in the racial sense), and nationalism. “Red fascism” was mystical in a quasi-scientific way, talking about “the dialectic”, mythologizing the mandate of history, and being internationalist, rather than nationalist.

Both groups were similar, however, in liking to kill perceived enemies.

Both killed “traitors”: anyone who disagreed with the ideology of the rulers. Nazis also killed on a racial basis: anyone of an “inferior race”–Jews, Gypsies and Slavs–as well as anyone who was “inferior” in other ways: homosexuals and the developmentally disabled.

Communist enemies were usually individuals from social classes: aristocrats and “Kulaks” (wealthy peasants). They were, of course, just as intolerant of dissent as the Nazis. And both were totalitarian, identifying good with their respective parties. Nazis also identified good with the German country and race, while in theory Communists identified it with the “international proletariat”. The latter was more difficult to implement, so Stalin came up with the correct line (the Communist form of political correctness) of “socialism in one country”. The ideologies differed, the methodoligies did not.

The political center was then the part of the population from which hope of government that was NOT totalitarian might come. The American dream has represented that hope, and has sometimes been a fairly effective factor in our history. But our country too has totalitarian tendencies that have been noticeable and influential.

Reich’s belief was that sexual repression was the psychological basis of totalitarianism. His belief was that the body, once freed of the physical “armor” made by repression, became self-regulating. Self-discipline is the answer that repression tries to be. But in order to discipline one’s self, one must first experience. Repression is flight from experience.

Reich said that through a “complete” orgasm one experienced a deep relaxation and openness, which seemed to be one of the benefits sexuality was intended to provide. “Armoring”, the physical expression of repression, prevented such a complete orgasm. And, he thought, the attempt of natural desires to emerge through the armor changed these desires into something less natural. The result would be sadomasochism on an individual or mass scale. Such a view accords with the history of the 20th century.

So I wonder about the survey described above. Superficially a fanatic may be happier than either a conservative or liberal, though hysteria on either side of the political continuum would seem to dispute that. And the horrific acts that fanatics can justify seem to have roots in something more than what the fanatic believes is right or wrong. I think such acts must begin in personal and societal pathology that justifies terror in the service of something better, or merely in the service of personal revenge for suffering.

Unfortunately, we live in a sick world. Whether Reich’s description of the sickness is valid, and if it is, whether it’s the deepest and most valid description, it’s at least a provacative view implying what we need to do to become healthy. If it is valid, I doubt that it’s the last word.


Money and Technology: The Alternate Worlds


I tend to think of money as an alternate world, or creating an alternate world. Currency of the old-fashioned sort is derived from natural materials, but I can’t see it as part of the natural world. And now, when money is part of a computer memory as much as it is anything, I find it difficult to see it as anything but an abstraction. A very powerful abstraction, though.

I think money must have come into being with technology, as human societies became more complex. When you have cities instead of just tribes, a medium of exchange becomes necessary. Now it’s evolved into an ideology, and in concert with technology, insulates us from the natural world.

According to Camille Paglia, in Sexual Personae, humans created society to protect themselves from the destructive power of nature. On the one hand we piously talk about how nature gives us everything, but on the other, it can and does take everything away, often with little notice.

Humans have used technology to create worlds that were safer and more secure for themselves. But that effort became unbalanced and metastasized. Nature is the basis of our life, and while it’s legitimate for us to protect ourselves from her destructiveness (notice that nature is always referred to as a woman), the history of the western hemisphere seems to coincide (though the tendency must have started much earlier) with an exploitative attitude towards nature.

Wendell Berry, in The Unsettling of America says that although the exploitative mindset was always dominant in the European conquest of these continents, there was also always a nurturing strain, certainly among the farmers who decided that here was a good place to settle, and entered into a relationship with their land. He’s a farmer himself, farming land that’s been in his family for some 200 years, so he knows something of this from the inside.

But the paradigm of exploitation is dominant in this country and the rest of the developed world, as also in the former colonies. And it has reached the point of serious consequences. It’s more comfortable to deny that climate change is because of human activity as much as anything else. And even less palatable is the idea that climate change is a subset of pollution, which has several other unpalatable booby-traps waiting for us. As  various plant and animal species are driven into extinction, we have less of a foundation on which to live. But we don’t often consider that.

Technology hasn’t been content to create just artificial worlds: it’s taken to creating virtual worlds too. Farms are artificial worlds. Barns protect livestock from the weather, so they can be taken care of by farmers and used to produce milk or food. Crops are artificially planted every year and watched over to make sure they grow, insofar as the farmers can control that, so that farmers make a living, and the land continues to be fertile.

Virtual worlds include movies, TV and the internet.The worlds they invent have little to do with the natural world. They may include others, but are largely imaginary, even if based on realistic situations. Artworks aren’t supposed to take all your time and attention, but they become more profitable if they do.  Everyone who sells you something intends for you to keep on buying from them, to become obsessed with their product so that you wouldn’t just buy one time and then do something else. That’s the sense in which addictive drugs are the perfect product: once you’re hooked, no sales pitch is needed.

Berry says the exploiter’s approach is to make a killing, rather than a living, and to do as little work as possible. Work has become devalued, as something we all want to avoid. But do we have a right, he asks, to avoid it? Nature made farms possible, but didn’t provide them fully equipped. Human labor did that, and the farm may be seen as the archetype of how to live in nature: cooperatively rather than exploitatively. If we won’t cooperate with nature, eventually nature won’t cooperate with us.

And making a killing, attractive as it may be, is also a questionable activity. It usually means making a lot of money no matter the consequences to one’s self or anyone else. While capitalism has accomplished amazing things, the temptation to profit at any cost is inherent in it, and is a danger to the world and human society. Money is a very tempting idol to worship.

Maybe we’ve reached the position of the child who wants unconditional love to continue, even though he or she has reached the age of responsibility. If we refuse responsibility, certain things will happen, and we probably won’t like them. An old saying is that ignorance of the law is no excuse. That particularly applies to nature’s laws.

As a species we’ve been refusing responsibility a long time, and the bills are starting to come due. Money may have a certain kind of reality (inflation argues that it does), but it’s also a delirious dream that many of us would do almost anything for, without regard to the ethics or morality of what we do. Just because cyanide separates gold from ore doesn’t make soaking a mining area in cyanide a good idea. And internal combustion engines are among the leading producers of carbon dioxide at the same time that we’re destroying forests that would use the CO2 and provide us oxygen in return. One of the results of this seems to be not only excess CO2 in the atmosphere–one of the leading causes of global warming, but excess CO2 in the ocean, rendering the ocean too acidic to support life as it has in the past. One of many ways of destroying the foundation of life that supports us, as well as other plant and animal species. And what’s bad for other organic life is also bad for us.

These human activities are undertaken primarily for profit. Profit is sacred in the money universe, but in the material world it leaves out other values.

Wendell Berry points out that agribusiness as it is now wants to charge as much as possible for its products, while consumers want to pay as little as possible. Money is the dominant factor in this dynamic, while other values get lost.

Profitablility drives farmers to produce as much as possible, which means that farms have to be extremely large, and to use cruel and short-term strategies to produce as much  as possible. Quantity drives out quality in both the food we eat and the treatment of the land and livestock that produces it.

Traditional farmers came up with the idea of rotating crops and leaving certain areas of land fallow to ensure the land’s continuing fertility. Soil is a very complex phenomenon, and mistreatment can destroy its fertility ought not to be planted all. Profitability is an incentive to plant on such land, and not to rotate crops. It demands more of the soil than the soil should be asked to give. Artificial fertilizers and insecticides are also a bad idea, though they increase yield.They’re bad because they depend on petroleum and power to produce crops, instead of techniques that work in harmony with the natural world. They’re also at least questionable because they introduce chemicals into the environment whose effects we don’t know. That’s at least reckless behavior, and may have negative consequences we have little idea of. Greed prompts these illogical and unthought-out behaviors.

Native Americans had a different view of the land: it belonged to God, and COULDN’T belong to individuals. At least one chief of a western tribe foresaw our mistreatment of the land. Being unable to oppose it, he was resigned to it, but didn’t think it was right.

So money is our obsession, and the main thing we depend on. We would be on firmer ground if we depended on traditional skills to take care of our environment, but blind worship of technological fixes coupled with greed to make ever more profit blinds us to the dangers of our behavior.

Traditional farmers, on the other hand, HAD to have a whole variety of skills. A farm demands that kind of versatility. A farmer has to know how to do many things to take care of animals and crops, buildings, equipment, etc. Specialization has its place in society, but can become too narrow to the point of being unable to see alternative solutions to problems.

Farming was considered a lower-class activity, even though the rest of society depended on what the farmers produced. An innovation in this country was farms where individuals could own their own land, rather than being employees of large landowners. Obviously this wasn’t true in all areas, especially the South, but it was a lot more true than in Europe, where there was a great deal less land, and a formidable establishment that monopolized most of it.

So we now see the United States becoming a similar establishment, in which individual farmers are unable to survive. Berry points out that official thought on this in the 1960s and 70s was that this was good, and conceived agriculture’s productive capacity as a weapon to be used internationally. He doesn’t at all like the idea of food as a weapon, and also sees these officials as not realizing the social dislocations that the loss of family farms produced.

Things haven’t changed much since he was writing this book. There are no more family farms than there were then, and little for people to do in small communities, which is why drug problems are no longer confined to cities. When people feel trapped, drugs are one of the things they’re likely to turn to.

Family farms were once the source of a practical morality. Laziness would be punished in a pretty unmistakable way, so successful farmers weren’t lazy. They also realized that they would need help at times, so they helped their neighbors.

Such areas were the source of community, which is lacking in this country now. Loneliness and alienation have to do with the lack of meaningful community, which may also have to do with lack of meaningful work, but may also have to do with isolating effects of technology. TV, movies, and the internet may give the illusion of community, but not the real thing.

People now routinely leave the areas they grew up in and reinvent themselves elsewhere. That’s not intrinsically bad, but may not provide the sort of deep connection that humans really need. Not everyone wants to live where everyone knows them and everything about them, but may need that kind of environment more than they realize. Not all communities are good, but humans need community, which may have a lot to do with the fear and despair we see in contemporary society. Too little community means little trust, and inability to trust leads to fear, and fear leads to terribly destructive behavior.

Family farms may have provided a corrective to that sort of loneliness. They wouldn’t have prevented loneliness entirely, but they did provide roots that many of us now lack.

They also were units of independence. Traditional farmers had to be able to do many things, and the result of their work was being able to support themselves, with minimal dependence on anyone or anything else.

That sort of independence is highly praised, but doesn’t actually exist in many places now. Most of us are dependent on the power grid and the mass transportation that brings us our food, our cars, and the fuel for them. Without those things we don’t survive–unless we take the trouble to learn the skills of survival.

Money and technology have transposed survival into a different world from nature. We are dependent on both. And the alternate and virtual worlds are a contraction of consciousness of both our actual condition and how to solve the problems brought about by the very tools (now become idols to worship) that we thought would set us free.


No Green Solutions


A recent letter to the Roanoke, VA Times says that those who advocate ending the use of fossil fuels haven’t yet come up with solutions to our nation’s energy needs.

He’s right, but that isn’t exactly the point.

What IS the point is that using our current energy sources degrades the environment ever more, which makes our civilization unsustainable.

First, he says, we need to figure out how many solar collectors and windmills are needed, and where they should be constructed. That makes sense. Then he says that nuclear power can’t be considered because of hysteria about nuclear energy. There, I must disagree. Nuclear power shouldn’t be considered until we have an effective way of disposing of nuclear waste, which has half-lives of hundreds of thousands of years. Otherwise nuclear power is just a trade-off to a system no more benevolent than our current one.

Batteries, he says, no matter how much the technology is improved, still have to be charged. If the source is dirty, they’re not much of an improvement. Also true.

He also calls resistance to fracking a “witch-hunt”, saying that fracking for natural gas is at least cleaner than strip-mining for coal. I think that’s debatable, to say nothing of the amount of water needed, or the unknown long-term consequences of injecting that amount of water deep into the earth. Not to mention the chemicals used in the water so injected. Are those chemicals entirely benevolent? I don’t know. Does the author?

Yes, the green movement hasn’t yet come up with ideas that can readily be implemented, but we already know that our existing power system contributes greatly to the pollution that is destroying the ecology of the world, and therefore our ability to survive. Instead of rewarding the polluters, why not subsidize a search for a truly safe energy? Otherwise we’d better be ready for the end of civilization as we know it, and possibly the end of our species as well. Poisoning our environment is poisoning ourselves.

The writer promises to listen to the green movement only when it comes up with implementable solutions. I think we’d do better to at least BEGIN listening now, so we can be part of the solution. Waiting only increases the inevitability of disaster.

But many people haven’t wanted to listen to predictions that have been made since well before I was born. We seem to have streams of destruction converging that make cataclysm inevitable. Not only in the area of ecology, but in all our politics and economics.

It is as much a pragmatic question as it is moral. If we can only get what we want through poison, there’s something wrong with what we want. Why is there something wrong with what we want? Because, I would presume, of what we worship. If profit is our only goal and ethic, then any means of realizing profit is allowable. Or as Hassan i Sabbah, a leader of the Assassins, supposedly put it, “Nothing is true, everything is permissible.”

If that’s the case, then there is no consequence for denying climate change and human contribution to it. There’s nothing wrong with anything that anyone considers unjust. Slavery is as permissible a means of profit as anything else. So is fraud.

Yes, the green movement needs plans that can be implemented. The rest of us need to do some soul-searching.