Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Corrupting Power Of Elites

                                                                                               written 18 October 2020

                                                                                           published 25 October 2020


            Spirituality is the direct personal experience of the larger whole, transcending material reality.  Religions are organizations that arise to promote that spiritual experience, but quickly become subverted to accumulate wealth and the political power to dominate populations.

            A case in point is the Catholic Church, which became the official religion of the remains of Roman Empire about 400 years after Christ.  Despite teachings "to love the other as self" and "thou shall not kill", the church grew to sanction domination of the world by the Spanish and Portuguese empires, with instruction to convert or kill everyone they encountered.  In the process, the church became very wealthy, and very corrupt.  After the schism of Protestant Reformation, Christians began slaughtering other Christians, as the religions battled for political power and dominance.  

            All religions have a similar problem, distracted from the personal spiritual experience by power and domination.  The Shia-Sunni split, the root of Islamic conflict and terrorism, is a power struggle over inherited lineage between a cousin and an uncle of the prophet.  But in the US, the problem is Catholic political power.  Despite declining membership due to increasing irrelevance of church doctrine to modern life, and the persistent issue of pedophile priests, the Catholic Church dominates the Supreme Court of the United States.

            Five of the sitting Justices are Catholics put forward by the Federalist Society, with the support of Opus Dei.  According to US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, "a secret part of the Federalist Society does not care about conservative principles like judicial restraint, or originalism, or textualism, but is the vehicle for powerful interests, which seek to acquire control of the judiciary to benefit their interests, and rig the system in favor of its donors."  From Their Kingdom Come, by Hutchison, “Opus Dei uses the Catholic Church for its own ends which are money and power for its members: a transnational elite.  They seek to colonize the summits of power." 

            America was founded with the goal of forming a more perfect Union, based on the ideal that all men are created equal.  This was a radical experiment at the time, because most governments were based on dominance of the population by a small elite.  Some have pointed out that in practice, America shifted from domination by a distant elite of hereditary royalty, to a local elite of male property owners.  But the ideal was still there, and over time, voting franchise has expanded to include male non-property owners, then women, then people of color.  But there has always been an elite which works to distort the ideal of equality in favor of privilege: private law.

            The Republicans fear they are going to lose power this election, so, without popular support, they are rushing to place yet another conservative Federalist Catholic on the Supreme Court to lock in control over legislation for decades.  They are doing this rather than deal with the economic hardships caused by the pandemic because enriching the elite and corporations has been the primary Republican agenda for decades.  In the last few years, the five unelected Federalist Supreme Justices eliminated a century of legislation limiting campaign funding and 60 years of legislation protecting voter rights.  With another Federalist Justice on the court, the current concern is not only the integrity of this election, but elimination of health care for millions, abortion rights, gay rights, and perhaps even the 100 year history of the right of women to vote.

            In addition to being un-Christian and un-democratic, the entire concept of an "elite" is absurd from the perspective of a unity reality, which understand the fundamental connection between all apparent "parts".  The Covid-19 pandemic and the rapidly changing climate are global issues, effecting everyone. 

            What happens when people have no health insurance, and the hospitals are overwhelmed by an out of control pandemic?  How can the American economy, based 75% on consumers, function when so many people are out of work, and perhaps forced out of their homes?  How can the economy survive when increasing natural disasters, like floods, hurricanes, and wild fires, repeatedly destroy infrastructure to the point that insurance companies leave the region? What kind of long term investment is safe in such a world?  

            There is no planet "B" where the elite can escape. 






Sunday, October 18, 2020

Cultivating Empathy

                                                                                               written 11 October 2020

                                                                                           published 18 October 2020


            Prompted by William Russell's October 4th UDJ letter to the editor, I re-read Roberta Werdinger's August 19th essay "Poetry and empathy: The power of individual story", where she urges more sharing of personal experience through storytelling and empathetic listening as a mode for healing the divisions in our culture.

            Werdinger suggests that ideas are used to beat up the "other".  But it is the identification of "self" with specific ideas, that is the fuel for conflict, not the ideas themselves.  This is made worse by a cultural devaluation of empathy.  We have only to look at our current president to see that our political system does not prioritize empathy, and in economics, rational analysis is considered a virtue, while empathy is considered a liability. 

            For decades, I searched for the root of social ills, and eventually settled on the myth of separation which sees the "other" as enemy.  But it took longer to find how this become so endemic.  Leonard Shlain's book, "The Alphabet Versus The Goddess" suggests the rise of alphabetic literacy tipped the scales, prioritizing left-brain processes of differentiation and sequence.  Ideas, concepts, time, and the individual sense of self reside in the left brain, preoccupied with the past and the future.  The right brain processes whole systems, operating in the eternal now of experience, and is the seat of emotions, empathy, creativity, and inspiration.  

            In his recent book, "Leonardo's Brain", Shlain points to Leonardo Da Vinci as an example of an integrated left and right brain producing creative genius.  The two hemispheres are connected by a massive nerve bundle called the corpus callosum, which tends to be larger in women, artists, left handed people, and gay men.  That goes a long way to explaining our current social distress! 

            We rarely just experience the world as it is, but immediately interpret each experience within a framework of concepts, or stories.  Our internal story accumulates over time, beginning from the moment we are born and learn to speak, for language is a synthetic symbolic structure, processed in our left brain.  We constantly harmonize our collection of stories to maintain a unique, coherent worldview, which shapes how we view ourselves, and how we relate to others.  Werdinger's solution relies on strengthening right-brain qualities of empathy, overcoming left brain patterning, transcending the internal story.

            Much of our conceptual story is unconscious.  Without noticing we have identified with a story, we become trapped in its limited conceptual framework, internalizing the fears and biases of our family and culture, perpetuating misunderstandings and prejudices, while believing we experience reality clearly.  Racism, misogyny, tribalism, and classism are passed from generation to generation, an enduring legacy of sorrow, misery, and hatred.  

            Jill Bolte Taylor, author of "My Stroke Of Insight", described her experience of a massive left-brain stroke and her eight-year recovery.  When it happened, she lost all sense of her individual self and all her stories, including her language.  With the left brain quieted, she experienced a deep feeling of peace and a profound connection with everything in the world.  This is the domain of the right brain.  As her recovery progressed, her stories returned to her, but from her right brain perspective, she was able to evaluate which ones she wanted to reintegrate and which she could eliminate as no longer useful.

            For those of us dominated by left-brain concept, short of a stroke, how can I intentionally shift?  With attention, I can begin to notice the stories I am operating within, without judgment, just recognition.  The very act of noticing creates a slight distance between my awareness and my story, and begins the process of de-identification.  With practice, this space expands, and I have an opportunity for choice.  In this space, something new can arise.  Sitting meditation helps me cultivates this aware presence, increasing possible access to the domain of my right brain: empathy, inspiration, and creativity.  

            We face a world where old patterns are breaking down, and there is need for more creativity.  Intentional cultivation of greater cooperation between our left and right brain perspectives will help.  Humans are a young species, and have yet to experience the fullness of human potential. 

            Rumi summarized this beautifully.  “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field.  I will meet you there." 



Sunday, October 11, 2020

Five Month Covid-19 Check In

                                                                                                 written 4 October 2020

                                                                                                     for 11 October 2020



            On October 4th, reported US cases at 7,621,921 with 214,471 deaths, still the worst in the world, but India is coming on fast and may lead in cases within another month.  The US 7-day running average of daily cases hit 32,611 on April 9th, but the economic shut-down flattened the curve, and daily case count drifted down to 20,903 on May 27th.  Republicans, expounding the false dichotomy between the economy and public health, pushed to reopen businesses beginning in May.  Crowds on the 4th of July weekend produced a second peak of 69,207 daily cases on July 25th.  Daily case load drifted down to 35,182 on September 12th, but Labor Day crowds have created the beginning of a third wave, with today's case count hitting 51,179.  We are now in school season and cooler weather is coming, which will create more cases.

            In September, Covid-19 deaths increased 15 percent nationwide, and seventeen states had death rates increase more than 30 percent, 2/3 Republican controlled.  Since May, ten states have seen deaths increase more than 4 times the national rate: Florida (4.2), Mississippi (4.3), North Dakota (4.5), South Dakota (4.5), Montana (4.7), Tennessee (4.8), South Carolina (5.1), Arizona (6.7), Texas (8.1), and Arkansas (9.2).

            On October 4th, California had 829,744 cases, the most in the US, followed closely by Texas with 802,180.  The 7-day running average of California daily cases peaked at 10,022 on July 26th, declined and peaking again at 9,965 on August 17th, before drifting down to our current rate of 3,167.  Deaths in California since May have increased from 2,052 to 16,119 (786 percent), 3 times faster than the national average, but monthly increases declined from 96 percent in May to 26 percent in September.  The five southern counties of Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange, and San Diego have 60 percent of California case load.  Mendocino county case load increased 36 percent in September, down from the August increase of 235 percent, with only 1 new death.

            Recent reports have determined that the primary source of misinformation about Covid-19 is President Trump, who described the virus as "deadly and highly contagious" in taped private conversations with Bob Woodward, at the same time he called it a "Democratic hoax" in public.  GOP leaders have made denial of the virus a litmus test for party purity, and GOP political events defy even the politically diminished recommendations from the CDC, with no social distancing and public shaming for mask wearing.  The massive Sturgis motorcycle rally in South Dakota, with few masks and no social distancing, was championed by the Republican governor as good for the economy.  

            Early Covid-19 infections happened mostly in "blue" states, which Trump claimed was the fault of the Democratic governors.  But those initial infections have been radically curtailed as a result of good public health policies, and the virus is now expanding fastest in "red" states, where the same policies are ignored.  Rank and file Republicans, believing the President is telling them the truth, doubt the reality of the virus, until they, or someone they know, gets it.  This is "head through the windshield" style of learning.  

            Late on October 1st, after reports Trump advisor Hope Hicks had tested positive for Covid-19, it was announced the President and First Lady also tested positive.  The next day, after the stock market closed, Trump went to Walter Reed, and received treatments reserved for very sick people.  

            It appears Trump was showing symptoms as early as Wednesday morning, the day after the debate, but kept it secret and continued with rallies and intimate fundraising events with top GOP donors.  Suspicion of the infection source focuses on the September 26th Rose Garden event announcing Amy Barrett's Supreme Court appointment, attended by the leadership of the Republican party, with no social distancing and few masks.  Fifteen people at that event have tested positive so far.  

            It is clear the virus has not gone away.  As Republicans scurry to isolate and get tested, the campaign and the rush to pack the Supreme Court might be derailed.  Trump's public dismissal of Covid-19, with Republican sycophantic support, may have determined the outcome of this election more than Russian interference and overt GOP voter suppression.  Denial of reality is inevitably doomed to fail.  

            Stay centered, stay tuned, and please vote.



Sunday, October 4, 2020

Herd Mentality

                                                                                         written 27 September 2020

                                                                                           published 4 October 2020


            President Trump recently mentioned that the new federal Covid-19 goal is to create "herd mentality".  This engenders images of lemmings mindlessly following the leader over the cliff, or panicky stampeding buffalo.  Trump was trying to describe herd immunity, but we know about Freudian slips.

            Last month, Trump installed a new advisor for Covid-19, Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist with no epidemiological experience, but a frequent talking head on Fox News.  Atlas advocates creating herd immunity as soon as possible, which appeals to Trump as it requires little federal action.

            With most diseases, an infection survivor builds antibodies which can protect against future re-infection.  When a significant portion of the society (50%-90% depending on infectiousness) has this antibody protection, large-scale infections disappear.  This is called herd immunity.  In some diseases, the protection lasts a lifetime, in others it fades with time, sometimes within months.  If the disease mutates sufficiently, previous antibody protection may no longer work, which is why a person can get the flu again the following year.

            Covid-19 is a new virus, so critical information is still emerging.  There are reports of people being re-infected, and data showing antibodies rapidly decline after a few months, raising questions about developing herd immunity through wide- spread infection.  Putting aside the question of the possibility of herd immunity, we can examine the human cost of deliberately pursuing this approach.

            On September 27th, listed 7.3 million cases (2% of the US) and 209 thousand deaths, giving a death rate of 2.8%.  If we allow that another 7.3 million folks might have been infected (a total of 4%), but recovered without being tested or presenting at a hospital, we get a death rate of 1.4%.  If we take a 70% target for herd immunity, we need to infect another 232 million Americans, of whom more than 3 million will die at current rates. 

            But that is a serious underestimation of the deaths that will result.  About 15% of those infected require some hospitalization, and a fifth of those require ICU care.  At that rate, of the 232 million new infections required to hit herd immunity, 35 million will need some hospital care, of which 7 million will need ICU care.  However, the US has about 930,000 hospital beds and 100,000 ICU beds.  An out-of-control infection would overwhelm the entire hospital system.  Many people who would survive Covid-19 with the proper care will die and all the "normal" health issues will become more lethal as well.  In June, when the US case load was four times smaller, over 600 nurses and doctors on the front line had already died.  With another 232 million infections, those numbers could approach 20,000: each death decreasing the efficiency of the health system.

            But even that isn't the whole story, because it focuses just on deaths.  Those who survive Covid-19 are also affected.  Over 30% have inflamed heart muscles, and 10% have blood clots.  Long-term effects, such as gastrointestinal disorders, extreme fatigue, erratic heartbeat, memory loss, and brain fog, some still unresolved after five months, have been reported in 10% of the infected population, suggesting another 23 million people would be affect before hitting herd immunity.  

            The White House herd immunity plan suggests that we simply isolate the vulnerable and the rest should do fine, with Trump recently claiming 99% are unaffected.  But the 15% of Americans over 65, the 35% of Americans who are obese, the 10% of Americans who are diabetic, and the 4% who are immune-compromised are all vulnerable.  While there is some overlap in these groups, it is hard to imagine how to isolate all these people, especially if we don't test everyone to know who is actually infected.

            Herd immunity has short term political attraction for Trump, but the human and economic costs will be enormous.  In addition, Republicans are trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act and eliminate coverage for pre-existing conditions like Covid-19 damage, which will adversely affect health care for 100 million Americans.  The issue will be heard before the Supreme Court the week after the election, which is part of why Republicans are rushing to install a new Justice.

            This will be the most consequential elections in US history, affecting the health of our people and our democracy.