Why social media are crushing our souls

Came across this in my computer today, dated November of 2015. Never published it here, but it’s something I’ve thought about a lot over the last couple years.

I am not the only one who experiences an inexplicable anxiety related to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. And when Facebook fails to open, as it did this morning on my phone, I am not the only one who secretly hopes it will be disabled by some heroic hacker and go away forever.

A million years of evolution did not prepare us for this. We are the most complex communication machines yet invented, but social media have taken us by surprise, which is why a dread that even Kierkegaard would not recognize has afflicted our sad species over the decade since Facebook forced its will upon us.

For a million years, the only communication humans engaged in was interpersonal communication: either one-to-one, or one to a small, intimately familiar audience.

Over the last few thousands years, writing has developed, and over the last 500 or so, mass communication has become possible: one person speaking or writing to a large, mostly unknown audience. First, the town crier, then the local Gutenberg. Eventually, William Randolph Hearst and Rupert Murdoch.

For 490 of those 500 years, mass communication was the privilege of a sliver of the population: those rich enough to afford a printing press, or talented enough to win a role as writer or, more recently, broadcast journalist.

Only in the last decade have we all become mass communicators, directing a large portion of our daily communication to a wide audience composed mostly of strangers — a handful of real friends and relatives, and a much larger contingent of “friends” we barely know, or knew once, or know only via digital technology.

A human only has so much daily communicative energy. It’s hard to speak and harder to write. The more we devote our limited energy to sending messages into the ether, directed at those we barely know, the less is available for more crucial face-to-face or written communication with family, intimate friends, and daily associates.

As a result, important relationships have suffered, while unimportant ones have stolen an increasing share of our time and effort.

In face-to-face, interpersonal communication, we know each other, we understand the context, we listen, we reason together, and we sometimes change our minds.

In mass communication, we don’t share a context, we don’t know each other, we can’t interpret motive or meaning, and disagreement immediately turns upper case or silent.

We are lab rats in an experiment designed by accident, and we’re responding like captive animals: turning inward, fighting with phantoms, obsessed with unreality.

We all know politicians are phony. That’s because everything they say is carefully constructed to appeal to the widest audience possible.

The alternative is to say what you really think, which in mass communication makes you appear crazy. The Internet is full of Donald Trumps letting too much hang out and Hillary Clintons playing it way too safe.

On Facebook, we are all either politicians mincing words or crazy people speaking off the cuff. There’s either too much second-guessing or not enough. No mass communicator makes sense to everyone.

Evolution prepared us for an extraordinary set of complex communication tasks: using lips, tongue, teeth, lungs and larynx to produce an almost infinite variety of meaning-rich sounds; reading the countless expressions on faces made by hundreds of muscles that evolved over millennia; and processing words and gestures through miles of neural pathways in the overdeveloped gray matter upstairs.

Evolution prepared us for the real world. The virtual one has taken us by surprise.

The communication skills we were born with are moot when it comes to social media. Written conversation with near-strangers inevitably leads to uncomfortable situations involving misunderstanding, conflict, danger, fear, confusion, anger and even virtual violence. No context. And way too many cats.

It’s depressing. Annoying. Infuriating.

Why? Because we didn’t evolve for this. We are not born to be mass communicators.

As convenient and unavoidable as social media have become, the healthiest choice for most of us would be to drastically limit, if not eliminate, our mass communication, and focus our energy and time on those we truly love.

1 year, 1000 miles

I gave up running, for the most part, a couple years ago. I decided to only run when I felt like it, which is almost never. But I almost always feel like walking.

A couple years ago I decided to walk two miles a day instead of running, and then last year I upped the ante with a New Year’s resolution to walk 2.5 a day, with an extra walk on the weekend, for a total of 20 miles a week. I hoped to hit 1000 for the year, leaving me a couple weeks off.

I got ahead of myself and hit my goal a bit early, making me the first person in history to accomplish a New Year’s resolution (judging by all the comments you’ll hear about the futility of resolutions).

All 1,000 miles were outdoors, and the vast majority were on my two miles of trails — over the fields, through the woods, along the river — plus a half mile on the township road to the mailbox and back.

When I’m traveling to Chicago or the Twin Cities I’ll usually fit in a walk on the sidewalks or paths, or at a park somewhere. We did about 50 in the Three Sisters Wilderness last summer, plus some nice hikes in California when we were visiting friends in March.

I’m going to stick to the same plan in 2018, and as long as my body holds up. There’s no better way to start the day, or end it, than a nice, long walk.

Welcome to 1968

In a hateful white backlash against the progress made by minority people, a dangerous, narcissistic demagogue was elected president over an uninspiring, imperfect but relatively competent opponent who was turned into a cartoon villain by allies as well as enemies.

In response, the youth of the nation, who have been organizing to change American society from the ground up, built a counter-cultural movement to create a more just, fair, tolerant, peaceful and hopeful country — and a healthier planet.

I remember election night in 1968. I was five years old. The TV was black and white, and the returns came in on a primitive scoreboard with holes in it, and behind the holes, cylinders with the 10 digits on them. As the cylinders rolled and rolled, for Nixon, Humphrey and Wallace, my dad’s expression grew more and more grim. He always said he went to the Philippines (where I was born in 1963) a McCarthy Conservative and came back a Humphrey Liberal.

Now we just have to avoid ’72. As you recall, that’s when the demagogue was reelected in a landslide against George McGovern, setting the stage for the Republican revolution of the ’80s. I don’t remember that election. I was nine and living in Thailand, where we didn’t get much American news, and I only read the funnies in the English-language papers.

We have certain advantages that may help us avoid that fate: demographic changes that favor liberalism, a strong majority who didn’t vote for Trump, other odious Republican leaders like Ted Cruz, and the benefit of hindsight, which shows clearly that American conservatism has been a failure.

I’ve always looked forward to the day that the counterculture would resurface, and here we are. I always liked the hippies. (Heck, I live in a quasi-commune). They were like older siblings to me, the college kids my dad taught in his classes. He liked them too, and became even more liberal with age. I looked up to them and thought they were moving the country in a better direction, but when the Boomers became yuppies and Reaganites in the 1980s, I was done with ’em.

Now it’s time for the kids to start leading us again, joined by women (who are mad as hell right now) and members of minority groups. American Indians already got the new era started in North Dakota, and African-Americans in the cities with the Black Lives Matter movement.

White liberal males like me have been far too complacent, letting others fight for their rights while too often sitting on the sidelines and enjoying our privilege. It’s time for us to start carrying water for a new generation of women and minority leaders, to get in line behind them and follow with all our might.

Happy warriors unite!

Wow, those Trump signs disappeared fast! Usually it takes a few days for people to get their signs down, but this time they were gone by the crack of dawn on Wednesday.  I’m sure their owners will tell you they didn’t want to gloat and wanted to comply with the rules, but I think something else was going on.

When they figured out their guy was actually going to win, they wanted to hide the evidence that they had voted for him. Can’t say I blame them. They have embarrassed themselves and our great country in the eyes of the world.

Trump can’t make America great again because it already is, and because he’s single-handedly made it less great than it’s been in decades by using his campaign to call people names, bully opponents, and incite violence and intimidation among his supporters. He has enabled and minimized racism and bragged about sexual assault while running a campaign that betrayed his own ignorance and gave voice to his followers’ ugliest instincts.

I believe the presidency will humble Mr. Trump, but that will not give him a pass. It’s going to take a great effort to undo the damage, and it begins today with an effort to oust as many of his minions as possible in two years, and to ensure that the Trump era lasts no more than four.

Yeah, Hillary was imperfect and dull, but she cleaned his clock in three debates, and I’m pretty sure a lot of Trump voters are thinking dull sounds pretty good about now. They’re going to have a hard time explaining their vote to their daughters and granddaughters this Thanksgiving. They could’ve voted for the first woman president; instead they voted for the man who said those things on that bus, and who has broken several promises before he’s even been inaugurated.

The good news is that there’s plenty of room over here on the right side of history. We liberals are a welcoming bunch. We like people of all colors, creeds, genders, orientations, and identities — even former Republicans. We’re also a forgiving lot, and we’ll take you in without requiring you to confess or do penance. Just put a smile on your face and be ready to fight for positive change.

If you’re on my side, let’s get together and talk. Find me on Facebook and we’ll start doing our part locally to build a more welcoming society and a healthier planet. And we’ll do it following the great Minnesota “happy warrior” tradition of Humphrey and Wellstone, in contrast to the fear, anger, and hate that motivate the other side. (Did I mention that liberals are more cheerful and have more fun?)

As much as I enjoyed sitting quietly in the relative calm of a sane country, now’s not the time to hide under the covers, as much as we’d like to. On behalf of those who may rightly feel intimidated by and afraid of Trump and his followers, we need to keep our heads up and our voices loud. There are thousands of us, even here where Trump won big. We’re not going away, and starting today, we’re only getting stronger.

A crazy world needs happy warriors


This was first published at https://goodmenproject.com/ethics-values/this-crazy-world-needs-happy-warriors-dg/

A small piece of paper with four sentences is thumb-tacked to the wall in my closet, and when things get rough, I read them.

I haven’t learned much of great value in 53 years, and my mantras are nothing profound, but on a day like today, and during the weeks and months ahead, I’ll rely on them, as I have in the past.

Focus on what’s really real

Most of what gives us anxiety comes through the airwaves or phone lines into plastic rectangles we poke or stare into. This is not reality. Reality is the world you can actually see, taste, hear, smell and touch. The rest is bits and bytes and flashing false reflections of reality.

We didn’t evolve to cope with mass communication, so the most we can do to be healthy in our primate selves is to keep it in perspective. We especially didn’t evolve for this world in which we’re all mass communicators anonymously sticking our tongues out at each other in virtual cesspools. Blow up your TV if you need to. If you can’t, disconnect your satellite, or simply resist the impulse to turn it on or pick up your stupid smartphone every five seconds. If you have to use it, talk instead of texting. Get rid of Facebook, or unfollow everyone who brings you down.

Hug your kids and partner. Eat good food. Call your friends. Listen to live music.

Don’t worry about what you can’t control

This should be obvious, but we lose sight of it during difficult times. All we could do yesterday was vote, which we did, but it wasn’t enough. We shouldn’t burden ourselves with a false sense of our own importance. We are small players on small stages, which should come as a relief.

We can control what we focus on (what’s really real) and the energy we send into the world. We’re all motivated by primal feelings, mainly fear and love, and we can choose the latter over the former. Fear leads to anger, which is the problem with American culture today, and probably the main cause of Trump’s win. Love (which someone said casts out fear) leads to joy, hope, and positive action, and also to number 3…

Our posts and tweets and blogs aren’t changing a lot of minds, and a few more GOTV efforts weren’t going to win it this time. Write if you need to, knowing you don’t need to. If you’re drawn to political involvement, get involved, but remember it doesn’t all depend on you.

Everyone is mentally ill or ignorant (including you). Have sympathy.

We’re all just sophisticated monkeys with brains that have outgrown our ability to master them, in a social and physical world too complex for us to understand and respond to in a healthy way. It’s no surprise that many of our neighbors can’t see what seems obvious to us. It’s also no surprise that some respond to this situation by developing various forms of craziness, which were on display in the collective madness of the election.

This is not to say that all perspectives are equal. I firmly believe that mine is better than most people’s. But that doesn’t mean I can’t sympathize with my friends, neighbors, and even enemies who are more ignorant and ill than evil (which leads us to number 4).

Assume the best about everyone

It’s easy to believe that a lot of people are just plain bad, as Hollywood and our political leaders keep telling us. It’s not true. Most of us (Christian, Muslim, Jew, Atheist, Black, Brown, White, male, female) want to avoid conflict and live a relatively calm and prosperous life.

Most people don’t want trouble. They don’t want to get in a fight, fight in a war, or start a war. Trump tells us that many people are out to get us, and we don’t want to fall into the same trap by assuming he and his followers are out to get us. Hurtful and dangerous behaviors stem from pain and fear, something we can all relate to. Deep down, most of us want to do the right thing, and most of us will if given the chance — even those we’re mad at today.

C’mon, get happy!

So there you have it. It ain’t much, but it’s all I’ve got. As I was lying awake last night, I was tempted to play sick and spend the day with a pillow over my head, but now is the worst time to slink off and hide. We need to tell the world we’re still here, and always will be, and we’re not going to give up or remain silent.

We need to create a real community of human beings again, people we see, talk to, and touch — grassroots groups of happy warriors (the old nickname of my fellow Minnesotan Hubert Humphrey), to contrast with the angry warriors on the other side. Liberals have always had a lot more fun, and better music, and livelier conversation, and we can win people over with good cheer and kindness.

The Democratic Party should become just that. We should all be responding to the election by having a big old bash, and making it a welcoming space for everyone, especially those who might feel especially vulnerable right now: Muslims and other minorities, LGBTQ friends and family, and those like me living in a rural area surrounded by Trump signs.

I plan to enter this new era with a commitment to improving my corner of the real world, to loving my neighbors (even the ones I’m hating right now), to keeping things in perspective, and to stumbling hopefully and cheerfully through this beautiful day.

On leaving Tanzania

A few weeks ago, Diane asked me to write a post about what I miss about home. At the time, it was a short list, but the longer I’ve been away, the longer it’s grown.

At the top, of course, are Diane and my two beautiful children, followed by my brother and sister and their spouses and my two nieces. I miss my neighbors and my friends, the ones on Facebook who may read this, and the ones who aren’t and probably won’t.

I miss my animals, who warm and complicate my days, and I miss my home, our land in Bogus Brook Township. I miss the trails around fields and through woods and along the river. I miss the landscape of America, the amber waves of grain and the purple mountains and the Great Lakes. I miss the Twin Cities, where I sometimes go to get away from it all on the bike trails or at the bars.

I miss my guitar, even though I don’t play it much. I miss my job, and the people I’ve met working for the Mille Lacs Band.

The list of things I don’t miss is much longer. I don’t miss the cars, or driving, or the urban and suburban and rural sprawl that makes it impossible to walk anywhere for so many people. I don’t miss the looniness of American politics, or the gun culture, or the blind eye we turn to the most important things. I don’t miss the selfishness of Americans, who prefer military spending to foreign aid.

I don’t miss the media, the sax and violins, the 24-hour news cycle, the talking heads, the celebrity worship, the fretting and frittering. I don’t miss Netflix, although I do miss sitting on the couch with Diane watching a European crime series. I don’t miss KFAN, which I listen to way too much while driving way too far, but I do miss KBEK. I don’t miss school, but I miss some of my classmates.

I don’t miss the busy-ness, or the noose-paper (Jim Larson’s contributions to my vocabulary). I don’t miss materialism, or billboards, or the made-up and exaggerated problems that obsess and debilitate us. I don’t miss the food, not one packaged or processed or promoted bite.

There are many things I will miss about Tanzania: the weather, of course, the cheap food and drinks, and the wonderful staff at my local hangout, Woodlands. I’ll miss the nyama choma, the kachumbali, and the fresh chips. I’ll miss running into the friends I’ve made all over town. I’ll miss the students and staff and International School Moshi. I’ll miss seeing goats everywhere, and hornbills. I’ll miss the call to prayer from the mosque, and the roosters. Mostly I’ll miss the warm and welcoming attitude of the Tanzanian people as a whole. I can honestly say I’ve never been anyplace where the vibe (for lack of a better word) is as positive as here. In spite of the poverty and the hard work, people are happy and pleasant almost all the time.

I have a few regrets about my time here. I didn’t climb Kilimanjaro, but if I had I would’ve missed out on the Usambara Mountains and the coast and Zanzibar. I didn’t ride in one of those three-wheel taxis that always remind me of my year in Thailand as a kid. I didn’t maintain my trajectory with Swahili after the third week, although I continued to learn and end up satisfied with what I accomplished. I didn’t reconnect with some of the people I met. I didn’t sing karaoke or jam with my musician friend. I should’ve walked in the rain to his concert that night.

In spite of all that, I can’t wait to come home. The good outweighs the bad, in quality if not quantity. Tomorrow I leave. I’m ready.

The stripped-down life

It’s been quoted so often that it’s practically a cliché, this old saw by Henry David:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

And yet it’s a cliché because it’s so true. Because it’s what we want and can’t seem to find, we Americans. Because it’s a pearl of great price, a lost coin, a rich vein.

So you can substitute “went to the woods” (which I tried a few times) for “moved to a farm” or “spent a year in New Zealand” or “decided to do my student teaching in Africa.”

And that’s why thinking of home is complicated. As much as I love the U.S.A., (foremost family and friends, secondly purple mountains, deer and antelope etc.) and as out of place as I feel in Tanzania, I fear that the rubbish heap of American culture — from stupid smartphones to omnipresent advertising to church ladies running the government to comedy so unfunny they have to tell us when to laugh — will lure me not with a siren song but a jingling earworm into a life that is the antithesis of Spartan, however simple I’ve tried to make it over the years.

The marrow is hidden in bone as hard as diamond, wrapped in layers of fat and thick skin, clothed in poly-something-or-other and logos and slogans and snark, riding in the back seat of a Cadillac with fake chrome fake spoked wheels parked in a five-car garage beside an ATV and a speedboat and a Harley and a Prius beside a McMansion in a subdivision named for something that doesn’t live there anymore in a suburb with another stupid name in a sprawling megalopolis of labyrinthine roads to nowhere but strip malls selling fake food that pretends to come from real countries and the newest of everything designed by the greatest minds of our generation to distract us from the dear and deep and to fuse enamel to rock-hard bone to keep us from the marrow.

The other day I made a list called “Things I Hate about America”:

  • How unreflective we are
  • Anti-intellectualism
  • Anti-science
  • Obsession with bad religion
  • Racism
  • Smartphones
  • Militarism
  • Inequality
  • Advertising
  • The American Dream
  • Materialism
  • Celebrity worship
  • Strutting

At the top I should add “The inability to find much less eat the marrow.”

In New Zealand, I spent several months without a car, although Diane had one she drove to work and that we used for travels. I walked to the shop, bought my groceries, and carried them home. We heated the house with a coal fire and lived out of suitcases. Every day I said to myself “I’m on the other side of the world” and felt happy about it. I never did get a cellphone.

Here in Africa, I live without a car and walk to the shop and spend much of my days outdoors. My smartphone doesn’t work, and I don’t have a TV. No one has said an unkind word to me.

This is what I’ve enjoyed about a brief time in Africa, not only my own stripped-down life out of a suitcase with no car and no significant worries, but witnessing and admiring the marrow in what we used to call “the third world” but now call “developing countries” (whether they are or aren’t).

Food grows in every vacant lot, because people need it because they have no money to buy it. When they’re finished working at their jobs, they go to their farms and whack the hard dirt with heavy hoes that to me are the ultimate symbol of Tanzania. They need the rain, and when it doesn’t come, it’s all they talk about. They grow corn and dry it and grind it and cook it into something called ugali, which looks like a lump of white dough and tastes like what you dip it in, and they love it. My friend Samwel said ugali is man’s food, while chips (fries) are women’s food.

It wasn’t that long ago — 100 years — that America was like this. Today I saw 10 men with picks in a line digging a trench for a power cable. Down by the river, they pound rocks with other rocks to make smaller rocks. They make bricks from dirt and bake them in ovens and build houses from them, or for want of bricks they build a frame of sticks and pack mud for walls and roof it with palm fronds. They’re strong as hell, and the women even stronger, carrying more on their heads than we roly-poly Americans can carry in a wheelbarrow. Many of the men have cellphones, and they’re always texting.

And no, I wouldn’t trade my (relative) fortune for their lot, and I don’t think it’s better when all things are added up, but I do think we’ve traded marrow for a plastic bone, and our American Dream, to extend the metaphor, is an endless game of fetch, an obsession with the new and the news, a taste for carbon smoke, an unrequited love affair with celebrity, leaders who have time-traveled from the 13th century, food so altered and poisoned that it’s barely food, addiction to painkiller-killers and antidepressants no more effective in treating made-up ills than a witch’s brew, and a racism so deep in the marrow that it’s no easier to see or recognize or grieve over than the truth, goodness, and beauty we’ve sacrificed to the false gods of capital, power, and a plastic freedom more dumb than free.

So I have mixed feelings about coming home, but I hope I will arrive with sharper teeth and stronger jaws, more like Thoreau, that old hyena, and the first thing I’ll do in my new pursuit of happiness is to take up my hoe, and follow him.